Rihanna’s Gown, “Respectability” And Why Black Women Were NOT Better Off In The 1950s

June 6, 2014  |  

I knew there would be some crazy memes and negative responses when Rihanna appeared across the Internet, draped in glittery crystals and a warm smile, but I was not prepared for it to be this bad.

Okay, that’s a lie. The Internet is always pretty bad when it comes to these things. I mean, there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not shaking my head at the ridiculousness of what I read and watch (on a side note: I totally recognize that folks might feel the same way about me and my work at times, however that doesn’t make my point less valid…moving on). I mean, people are going in about the appropriateness of Rihanna’s dress like they knew what the CFDA Awards were prior to all this Rihanna-related press. As if people really tune in every single year with the family around the computer, rooting for Marc Jacobs to win for Womenswear Designer of the Year and throwing popcorn at the screen because Ralph Lauren won the L’Oréal Popular Vote. No. You and your clan didn’t have a clue because who is really THAT into fashion anyway? If you say that you are, then you would have likely considered the fact that there have been plenty of bare breasts and butt-cheeks floating around red carpets at fashion industry events for as long as the catwalk has existed – and way before Ri Ri showed us hers.

Not to mention all of the countless other respectable black women we seem to quote and admire, who too have been filmed in the buff. Those includes the likes of Grace Jones and Nina Simone, and of course, Josephine Baker (who Rihanna’s look was reportedly inspired by and whose birthday was on June 3). And there were many others. Of course, a few of those women were vilified and maligned for their boldness back in the day as well, like Baker, whose talent could only be appreciated on shores – and in communities – not of her own. And it was only after some time and reflection that we began to fully appreciate what these women were giving the world. Well, that’s at least how I like to imagine the narrative. The reality is that we ended up cloaking and rewriting much of their bold legacies in less “shameful” honorariums, but go about our hoe-shaming of others for not living up to those largely romanticized identities without missing a step.

Like the above meme.

There are so many things wrong with the above picture I just don’t really know how and where to begin. But for the sake of some sort of brevity, let me just focus on the romanticized view we have of the past. Cut it out already.

For many of us, the past (the 1950s for example) was this magical place of black reputability, where brown-faced kids rode bicycles down sterilized tree-lined neighborhoods; where dad worked 9 to 5 every single day while homemaker wife made from-scratch pound cakes in heels and pearls. And then, after dinner, the whole clan – including the family dog – would gather around the black and white TV for an episode of Leave It to Beaver.

However, the realities of the 1950s were less than idyllic – sometimes deeply. For one there was Jim Crow and segregation in the South as well as rampant discrimination in the North. Basically, 1950s America was racist as hell and a struggle for black folks. Also, poverty was prevalent in the black community. And unlike The Beav, black and brown kids had to do their playing in the slummy part of town, including the newly developed housing projects,while dad sat unemployed because nobody was trying to hire a black man and mom baked her world famous pound cakes for low wages in some white woman’s kitchen.

But there were still pearls and heels.

Those pearls and heels were mainly on the rising number of college educated black women, who after the second World War (which compelled many women to go into the workforce) often struggled between pursuing careers and personal ambitions and the rising tide of advertising and other propaganda by the dominate culture, which sought to define a woman’s worth by how well she kept house, herself and children. As pointed out in this article entitled, “A Glimpse into Marriage Advice From the 1950s,” the return of men from the War sparked a cottage industry of uncredited “experts” and “counselors,” who encouraged women to think of marriage as a fulfilling career. While the merits of work, both inside and outside of the home, were being hotly debated among the dominate culture, for many black women, their education and professional advancement in society wasn’t a choice. That lack of choice often led to many black women having dual consciousness.

Or as noted in the book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings:

With no rationale for achievement save material gain, they worried about how they were perceived as women at a time when their White peers were staying at home, having children and scanning the shelves for the latest appliances. One of Noble’s respondents said; “Sometimes I feel that Negro women feel guilty about the education that they do have. They are more conscious of the fact that accomplishments may prevent them from getting married. I have actually had them ask me how they can put on brakes, to keep from being “A” students and presidents of clubs, and so forth.” Nevertheless, economic exigency and the combined forces of sexism and racism kept propelling Black women forward…“The fact that they go on to higher degrees is not so surprising. There are so few things that come naturally to the Negro woman to inspire her to be herself. She is forever having to meet requirements for a job in order to make sure that she is in a position to bargain…It is regrettable that she is not free to make a genuine search either for learning or self-fulfillment.” The result, she said, was a “lack of healthy self-concept” which “created a sense of insecurity.”

Sometimes these insecurities manifested themselves in ways that sought to minimize their individual aims in life, both professionally and personally, in order to not further disturb the fragile ego of racism-weary black men or further malign themselves in a society, which historically had placed them outside of both righteous femininity and womanhood. (Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” comes to mind as an even earlier example of how black women were regarded as less than womanly) Many times, that meant cloaking themselves in dogmatic forms of virtue, respectability and morality. And yes, even down to how they exercised their sexuality.

Yet despite all of the effort to adhere to good girl morals and values, black women weren’t and aren’t revered for it. Not through the silent yet commonplace normalcy of domestic violence. And not through pay rates, disrespect and flat-out harassment from the white dominate culture. Matter of fact, there was never a time in history when a black woman’s respectability wasn’t questioned. Whereas white women have historically been the status of respect and purity and later could etch out spaces of their own to validate their own sexual revolution, particularly in both media and popular culture, black women were always expected to be beacons of classiness and morality to fight against against widely believed tropes that said we were innately promiscuous, aggressive and even predatory. And as such, what started out as a shield to protect us has become the equivalent of a cheap dollar store mask – suffocating us from the inside out.

Not to mention, some of those respectable looking women were actually well-dressed prostitutes. But that’s a whole other essay yet be written…

I understand fully the thin line we walk between engaging in healthy sexualities for ourselves and just doing so to conform to white supremacist hetero-capitalist patriarchy, which keeps all women objectified and subjugated. But how do we do the work of untangling ourselves from those binds, if we don’t take risks and cross lines to test and determine what works for you and what should have never been placed upon you to begin with? And how do we reclaim ownership of ourselves if we still let the fear of the white-monied-male gaze – or the worry of even hurting the black community – dictate how we choose to share our bodies, particularly as expression, with the rest of the world? It’s hard to say where Rihanna herself fits into this dichotomy between a healthy sexuality and one contrived by the dominate culture. I have to say that her dress being made using Swarovski crystals, a sponsor of the event, is not without its critique. However, and judging by the video of her twerking in her sheer gown without a care moments after winning Fashion Icon of the Year, I have to say that she really doesn’t appear to be oppressed to me. In fact, she seems to be having fun and enjoying it all. For that, I give her the utmost respect.



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