Spring is Sprung: Life Captures the Evolution of Race in America

Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

I truly do believe that old axiom that a picture holds a thousand words. In fact, I think my love of art and visual culture, makes me more likely to believe and think that far more than a thousand words can be captured in an image. Images can carry a weight of history, a whole Britannica of history and conflict. So my discovery of this image, featured on google as a link to Life Magazine‘s tribute to Spring Hats on April 19, 2009. The series of photos was taken by photographer Yale Joel, for Life,in 1962. Joel seems to be photographing in an upscale store, in New York city.

As a hat lover, I was inclined to explore the link. Two things struck me: 1.) stumbling across this series of womyn and men posing in front of the statue of what appears to be a life-sized black jockey/servant and 2.) the fact that Life featured no womyn of color – no Black womyn in particular, because hat wearing is a cultural heritage that many womyn of color carry on today. So, where were the womyn of color. And what, pray tell, the heck is going on in these images.

Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

To me, the posing womyn seem to capture the juxtaposition and conflict between white female sexuality and privilege/oppression and “othered” (here read as Black male) sexuality and the fantastical imagined gaze of the Black male. In many of the photos it appears that most of the womyn trying ton hats are completely oblivious or unaware of their placement in relation to the statue – though in some it looks as if the presence of the “servant” somehow enhances the play of trying on hats.

What a way to encapsulate the way that fashion can simultaneously ignore and exotify, distort, and subjugate the presence and images of people of color. On the one hand, the presence of the outrageously outfitted figurine, heightens the whimsy of trying on hats. On the other hand, none of the womyn seem at all to be engaging with or noticing the figure – even though it is in their direct line of sight. Only the man pictured in the image at right, seems to be playing at bending the realities in the photo – both playing at gender, and at the presence of the Black figurine. There is something in his playfulness, combined with the gaze into the mirror (a familiar narcissistic trope of film/literature that feminizes and suggests doom of a protagonist. For example Broken Blossoms, Snow White)

The attire of the mannequin is also telling; the clothing seems to be of European provenance in the 16th or 17th century. The mannequin is heavily ornamented – with earrings, pearl necklaces, and the costume the figurine wears is also heavily decorated. It appears that a candle-shaped light is placed in the mannequins left hand.

Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

What do you think?

Life Magazine Photo by Yale Joel taken in 1962. Image is featured on Google under "Spring Hats" on April 19, 2009.

Can fashion ever truly be trusted to put people of color into the full center of fashion, thus making itself more authentic, when so much of the experience, tension, and witty retorts of fashion are made at the expense of the “other,” or through co-optation of the styles of others?  As bell hooks wonders, albeit on a much larger scale, how can we move from margin to center? And how can we do so, without being at the center of a bonfire of vanities, but at the center of an multicultural industry with a truly sophisticated, inclusive, realistic and yet daring philosophy toward aesthetics and fashion.

Or maybe it’s all fun and games – fashion means nothing, race in fashion means nothing, aesthetics don’t reflect cultural meaning….



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