The first bars of gospel singer Shirley Caesar’s 1983 hit “Jesus I Love Calling Your Name” are blasting from the cassette deck, and when Mom joins in, singing terribly out of tune, I know our dressing ritual has begun. Pretty soon, she’ll be calling out, telling me to wake up and start getting ready for church. My mother wasn’t an extremely devout Christian, but we usually attended church on Sundays. I always believed it was because she loved strutting into the sanctuary in her carefully curated ensembles—big-brimmed hats in bold colors, painstakingly selected stockings, pumps, and accessories that coordinated perfectly with her color-blocked sheath dress, tailored pantsuit, or black leather pencil skirt. I watched in awe as Mom adorned herself, clipping on earrings and selecting the perfect necklace as she strained her way through Caesar’s greatest hits.
Church has been a house of style for Black Americans for centuries. During slavery, plantation owners outfitted their bond women and men in weekday clothing made from drab, cheap fabrics such as osnaburg and denim; but on Sundays, the enslaved could dress themselves in clothes of their own choosing and often of their own making. Women wore dresses and headwraps in vibrant material purchased with the meager wages they had earned from doing side work on nearby plantations or selling vegetables grown in their own gardens. The community, dressed in its Sunday best, would pierce the early morning air with their hymns and patterned handclaps as they sashayed from the slave quarters to the church house.
This dignified Sunday morning parade is the foundation for most modern-day Black adornment rituals and fashion theater. Everything from the fashion-show fund-raisers of the early 20th century to Black models such as Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison dazzling on the runways of 1973’s Battle of Versailles fashion show and queer folks strutting and posing in today’s ballroom shows can be traced to those early church parades. Even now, the fight to reclaim our humanity plays out in the clothes we wear on our fleshy bodies. For more than a decade, I have studied the rituals that link my mother and me to previous generations of Black Americans, analyzing how Black women and nonbinary people across ages, occupations, and regions have turned trauma into both sartorial pleasure and innovative fashion.