A beret, afro, and leather jacket in black conjures one image in my mind. That image is of the men and women of the Oakland based political group the Black Panthers. Hundreds of ideas about this group also form, but there contribution to fashion lags strangely behind. Ironically it is there image, through fashion, that makes the Black Panther Party the visually strong group they are.
Kathleen Cleaver and others like her emerged from the shadows of the Oakland streets to the forefront of the political 60’s to define a generation of black women. With not much finance to build with, imagination played the role in creating the image we know today.
Simple pieces with ample movement lend to the look. It would inspire strength for some and fear in others. Having been bound to media standards, BPP women wanted and needed to set themselves apart by embracing the fear of being their whole self. Black, the color of choice, for items such as tight turtle necks and hard leather jackets created a silhouette of strength and dominance of ones personal future. The black beret made a statement of the modern militia; we are organized, in charge and take note to recognize us. Under the beret, hair that was once straightened and conformed, became naturally free and a source of
inspiration for the wearer. The style, known as the afro, was unapologetic and allowed wind to move through every billowy follicle.
Though militant and strong, a sense of womanhood and celebrating feminism was not lost. Accessories played a huge part in separation from their male counter parts. Large earrings, in hoops or tear drop shapes, gave elegance and charm to fresh clean faces. The BPP also would feature medallions worn around the neck on long chains just to look polished and sharp. When establishing free lunch programs, African prints worn on dresses and dashiki, gave each child being served a representation of pride in their past and for their future.
Though the BPP has since been dismantled, many contributions to our nation remain. The slogan of the BPP was “Serve the People”, but first you had to feel strength and pride within and convey it to all that gazed upon you. If you want to play the game you must look the part, however the women of the BPP took it a step further. Making fashion not just something you see but also something you must feel. Colors, shapes, and textures all convey messages when the wearer feels it. These iconic women Of the Black Panther Party knew this and worked it.