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The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity

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Smithsonian Institution. Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage  Search this
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The creative traditions of dress and body arts among people of African descent in the United States reveal continuities of ideas, values, skills, and knowledge rooted in the African continent and in the American experience. They have been shaped by identities born of African heritage; legacies of bondage and resistance; and encounters and alliances between people of African descent, indigenous Americans, Europeans, and more recent African and Caribbean diasporas. They may reflect, for example, shared experiences of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; group commitments to faith; and the politics of gender.

African Americans "belong" to many communities variously defined by ethnic, class, gender and gender orientation, regional, religious, political, cultural, and other affiliations that exist in complex interrelationship with each other. Accordingly, there is no single African American aesthetic of dress; there are many aesthetics that at times overlap, intertwine, and are juxtaposed in visual dialogues defining difference and belonging.

Style, the art of dress and personal adornment, is a powerful way to assert complex identities, announce solidarity with a cause, proclaim music and dance preferences, uphold cultural pride, and declare belief in a set of religious and moral principles. In all its glorious diversity, African American style is as local as the barbershop on the corner and as global as the influence of hip hop dress culture among young people from Japan to South Africa. The 2013 Festival celebrated the communities, artisans, and exemplars of style who contribute to this distinctive, expressive art form and their creative approaches, processes, and performances.

The Will to Adorn Festival program was part of a multi-year collaborative cultural research and community engagement project initiated by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The project brought together faculty and students at historically (and predominantly) African American colleges and universities, museum and independent scholars, community and student researchers, educators, and cultural practitioners to document and present the wearable art traditions of African Americans from diverse regional, ethnic, occupational, faith, and ideology-based communities. This research focused on urban style centers - Atlanta, metropolitan Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and most recently Oakland, California. The project identified and represented a range of traditions of dress and body arts of Americans of African descent across the United States. At the 2013 Festival, this work was highlighted at the Research Tent, where, as part of the Smithsonian's Will to Adorn Youth Access project, teen researchers worked with visitors to create their own sartorial (dress) autobiographies.

Diana Baird N'Diaye was Program Curator, with a Curatorial Team including Olivia Cadaval, Elaine Nichols, and Debora Mack; Sally A. Van de Water was Program Coordinator. Advisors included: Harold Anderson, Mary Jo Arnoldi, Jade D. Banks, Rachel Delgado-Simmons, Tina Dunkley, James Early, Jessica Harris, Monte Oyd Harris, Christine Kreamer, Marsha MacDowell, Maurita Poole, Mark Puryear, Deborah Richardson, Gwendolyn K. Robinson, Pamela Rogers, Nicole Shivers, Pravina Shukla, Deborah Smith-Pollard, Gabrielle Tayac, Patricia Turner, Mary Arnold Twining Baird, and Deborah Willis.

The program was produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and supported by Smithsonian Institution funds from the Youth Access Grants Program, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and other Smithsonian fund sources. It was also supported by AARP. Major in-kind support came from the Smithsonian Office of Mobile Technology, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art, the Center for Aesthetic Modernism, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Bowie State University, Frank McClarin High School, University of the District of Columbia, University of Michigan, University of California-Los Angeles, Michigan State University, Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, and Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center. Research for the program was funded by the Craft Research Fund, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Smithsonian Scholarly Studies, Smithsonian Institution Consortium for Understanding the American Experience and Consortium for World Cultures, and the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts.
Maurita Poole and Spelman College students, Deborah Robinson and McClarin High School Video Production Program, Atlanta researchers; Althea Grey McKenzie, Baltimore researcher; Gwendolyn Robinson, Chicago researcher; Simone Forde, Deborah Smith Pollard, Detroit researchers; Diana Briggs, Malik Stevenson, New Orleans researchers; Jade D. Banks, Madaha Kinsey Lamb, and students of the Beverly Robinson Folk Arts Internship Program, Mind-Builders Creative Arts, New York City researchers; Shukuru Sanders, Oakland researcher; Harold Anderson and students at Bowie State University and Goucher College, Camila Bryce-LaPorte and students, Katherine Hockey, Mark Puryear, James Robinson, Washington, D.C., researchers; Sally A. Van de Water, Januwa Moja, Jade D. Banks, Betty Mahoney, U.S. Virgin Islands researchers; Camila Bryce LaPorte, Olivia Smith-Elnaggar, Deborah Smith Pollard, communities of faith researchers; Rachel Delgado-Simmons, Gabrielle Tayac, Native/African American communities researchers; Keisha Martin, on-line communities of style researcher
Kimberly Brown, Camila Bryce-LaPorte, James Early, Allison J. Hamilton, Elaine Nichols, Mark Puryear, Gwendolyn Robinson, Olivia Smith-Elnaggar, Gabrielle Tayac, Patricia Turner, Derrick Washington

Hadia Abul-Qasim, 1968-, henna artist, Washington, D.C.

Elena Crusoe Aiken, 1947-, jewelry maker, Silver Spring, Maryland

Kwasi Asare, 1963-, kente weaver, Washington, D.C., and Nwasam, Ghana

Akosua Bandele, 1951-, jewelry designer, Windsor, North Carolina

Vanilla Beane, milliner, Washington, D.C.

C. Alan Bennett (1968-) and the Bennett Career Institute, beauty school, Washington, D.C.

Lawrence Berry, 1942-, shoe designer and stylist, Upper Marlboro, Maryland

Andrea Bray, 1942-, milliner, Silver Spring, Maryland

Fana Chisolm, 1959-, hair braider and stylist, Silver Spring, Maryland

Malaika Tamu Cooper, 1967-, hairstylist and hair show organizer, Baltimore, Maryland

Jay F. Coleman, artist, tattoo artist, painter, lecturer, educator, Washington, D.C.

Evette Everett, jewelry designer and bead maker, College Park, Georgia

Dusan and Rachel Grante, cosmetologists, make-up artists, stylists, Vienna, Virginia

Alexis Gumbs, 1982-, dress artist and cultural activist, Durham, North Carolina

Diondra Hall, stylist, wig maker, Capitol Heights, Maryland

Fannie Hamilton, 1949-, master gardener and herbalist, Washington, D.C.

Al Haynes, 1959-, designer of Caribbean Carnival costumes, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Paul Koko, 1955-, tailor, Riverdale, Maryland

Crystal Little, milliner, Washington, D.C.

Peterbug Mathews, 1949-, cobbler and educator, Washington, D.C.

Dennis "Denny Moe" Mitchell, barber, New York, New York

Habeebah Muhammad, 1954-, confectioner of scents and natural body care products, Washington, D.C.

Januwa Moja Nelson, dress artist, Washington, D.C.

Cynthia Sands, textile artist, Washington, D.C.

Marvin Sin, 1948-, leather accessories designer, Windsor, North Carolina

Situ Sofon, hair braider, Silver Spring, Maryland

Thomas Tate, shoe designer and stylist, Upper Marlboro, Maryland

Brenda Winstead, designer, New Windsor, Maryland


Fatoukiné Ndiaye Abeille, style exemplar, Washington, D.C., and Paris, France

Christylez Bacon, musician, Washington, D.C.

Junious Brickhouse and Urban Artistry, dancers/voguers, Washington, D.C.

Juanita Britton, entrepreneur, Washington, D.C., and Ghana

Sharon Bullock, 1954-, designer, owner Metamorphosis Boutique, Silver Spring, Maryland

A'Lelia Bundles, family historian, writer, Washington, D.C.

Caribbean and Afro-Latino style exemplars, Washington, D.C.

Cristine Brooks Cropper, D.C. fashion commissioner, Washington, D.C.

Emory Douglas, 1943-, graphic arts designer, former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, San Francisco, California

Earthen Vessels youth, style exemplars, Washington, D.C.

Kahil El'Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, musician, tailor, Chicago, Illinois

Gladys-Marie Fry, folklorist, University of Maryland professor emeritus, Maryland

In Process..., Washington, D.C.

Kimberly Kelley, regalia maker, Nottaway tribal member, Washington, D.C.

Rosemary Reed Miller, historian and entrepreneur, Washington, D.C.

Lubna Muhammad, 1955-, fashion designer, Pennsauken, New Jersey

Betty Keckley Stratford, family historian, Washington, D.C.

Takoma Park Baptist Church, style exemplars, Takoma Park, Maryland


Jade Banks, director, Dr. Beverly J. Robinson Community Folk Culture Program, Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, New York, New York

Monte Oyd Harris, 1966-, Maryland, plastic surgeon, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Yemaya Jones, 1949-, resist dyer, Frederiksted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

James Pogue, 1993-, Frank McClarin High School student researcher, Atlanta Georgia

Darius Smith, 1993-, Frank McClarin High School student researcher, Atlanta Georgia

Geena Paige Mignon, genealogist, African ancestry

Edmund Asante, 1993-, Mind-Builders student researcher, Bronx, New York

Katherine Blanco, 1995-, Mind-Builders student researcher, Bronx, New York

Marlon Carter, Mind-Builders student researcher

Chennell Christopher, 1984-, Mind-Builders student researcher, Bronx, New York

Phylicia Martin, Mind-Builders student researcher

Debra Robinson, 1953-, videographer, educator, Frank McClarin High School, Atlanta, Georgia

Andrene M. Taylor, 1978-, health activist, CEO of Zuriworks for Women's Health, Washington, D.C.
Collection Restrictions:
Access by appointment only. Where a listening copy or viewing copy has been created, this is indicated in the respective inventory; additional materials may be accessible with sufficient advance notice and, in some cases, payment of a processing fee. Older papers are housed at a remote location and may require a minimum of three weeks' advance notice and payment of a retrieval fee. Certain formats such as multi-track audio recordings and EIAJ-1 videoreels (1/2 inch) may not be accessible. Contact the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at 202-633-7322 or for additional information.
Collection Rights:
Copyright and other restrictions may apply. Generally, materials created during a Festival are covered by a release signed by each participant permitting their use for personal and educational purposes; materials created as part of the fieldwork leading to a Festival may be more restricted. We permit and encourage such personal and educational use of those materials provided digitally here, without special permissions. Use of any materials for publication, commercial use, or distribution requires a license from the Archives. Licensing fees may apply in addition to any processing fees.
Collection Citation:
Smithsonian Folklife Festival records: 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
CFCH.SFF.2013, Series 5
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Smithsonian Folklife Festival records: 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
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Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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