Afro-Brazilian fashion is one of the weapons of resistance against racial discrimination: How clothing is translating into black political action

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Note from BW of Brazil: I’ve known it for years and it is nearly impossible to ignore these days. The black Brazilian population in terms of racial politics has come a lloonngg ways from it was just a few short decades ago. It’s a change that I can say, having been following this evolution since the year 2000, I’ve seen nearly first hand.

Back in the early years of the 21st century, I had begun reading about a new black Brazilian consciousness movement that took shape sometime in the 1970s coinciding with and influenced by the rise of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements in the United States as well as anti-colonial struggles in Africa.

But what most social scientists agree on is that that particular movement was more on a superficial aesthetic level, with young black Brazilians identifying with the Soul/Funk music that was all the rage in ghettos of the United States. In general, the so-called “Bailes Funk/Black” (black funk dances) that were attracting tens of thousands of Afro-Brazilians to these dances where they were rocking their afros, platform shoes and grooving to the sounds of James Brown and other funkateers of the era, didn’t lead any widespread political consciousness amongst the masses of poor, black youth in the favelas and poor neighborhoods of Brazil’s large cities. 

What we are witnessing today, in comparison, is a widespread awakening of the people, with demands for more access to spaces that for most of Brazil’s history have filled by people who are considered white. These demands also call for an end to the police violencethat victimizes black youth far more than their white counterparts, more political representation and opportunities in a job market that has always discriminated against them. 

Along with all of that, we see a new acceptance of a specifically black aesthetic, with hundreds of thousands of Afro-Brazilian men and women finding pride in their natural hairstyles, a far cry from days gone by when black women would go to various lengths to straighten their hair and black men would shave their heads as close as possible just to be judged as “acceptable”. And with this new pride in the hair has developed an entire market of Afro-Brazilian fashion styles being led by successful black entrepreneurs meeting the demand of a people carving out their own identity within a Brazil that has always sought to push such identity politics under the rug in order to promote the idea that race and racial tension didn’t exist in the country.

Yes, black Brazilians are pushing to be seen, to be heard and declaring themselves a part of Brazil that has always been denied: an Afro-Brazil, and the clothing and accessories are a big part of this evolution. 

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Black participation in Brazilian fashion already has its records in the 17th century, when black women produced and marketed linen clothes, jewelry and fabrics. But the history of Brazilian fashion is told from the 19th century – Photo: Marcelo Soubhia

Afro-Brazilian fashion is one of the weapons of resistance against racial discrimination

Research shows how this fashion is able to translate into political action and lead young black people to reflect on racial issues

By Antonio Carlos Quinto

At USP’s School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH), research shows how Afro-Brazilian fashion has been gaining ground and increasingly becoming a symbol of resistance and self-affirmation for the black population against racism and discrimination. “The ‘mão negra’ (‘black hand’) is and has always been present in fashion. But the history of Brazilian fashion is told from the 19th century, centered on the Belle Époque, and with that it used European culture,” says industrial designer Maria do Carmo Paulino dos Santos.

The master’s research Moda Afro-Brasileira, design de resistência: o vestir como ação política (Afro-Brazilian Fashion, design of resistance: dressing as a political action) has, among other objectives, retelling this story and showing how “this dressing is capable of creating a conscience that results in political actions”.

Pesquisadora Maria do Carmo Paulino dos Santos
Researcher Maria do Carmo Paulino dos Santos – Photo: Cris Nigro

According to Maria do Carmo, black participation in Brazilian fashion already has its records in the 17th century, when black women produced and marketed linen clothes, jewelry and fabrics. “They were known as ‘vendeiras’, who traded their products on the plantation farms as street vendors, moving, for example, from Bahia to Minas Gerais. And they already had their eyes on fashion,” she highlights.

This is the case of Joana Machada da Silva, or Dona Joana, a black woman freed in the year 1745. “Her inventory described goods such as fine fabrics of various types with a variety of colors and raw materials, heavy and full-bodied fabrics, embroidered in gold, silver lace, ready-made clothes, shoes. Joana was one of the saleswomen who traveled through the farms selling her products, even moving to do business from Recife (capital of Pernambuco state) to Minas Gerais, passing through the State of Bahia,”she says.

Orgulho Crespo

The inspiration for Maria do Carmo in undertaking her research came from her observations when she followed the Marcha do Orgulho Crespo (March of the Kinky/Curly Hair Pride), which has been taking place in São Paulo since 2015, every July 26th. In two editions of the event (2015 and 2017), the researcher closely followed the march, which departs from downtown, on Avenida Paulista. Thanks to this manifestation and due to the affirmative recognition in the fight against racism and ethnic-racial prejudice, State Law 16.682/2018 was instituted that instituted São Paulo’s Dia do Orgulho Crespo (Crespo Pride Day), which is celebrated every year on July 26th. “This year, due to the pandemic, the demonstration will certainly not take place as in the previous patterns. But, certainly, there will be virtual events to commemorate the date,”anticipates Maria do Carmo.

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That same year, 2015, in São Paulo, on July 25, the official launch of the March of the Black Women took place, in celebration of the International Day of Black Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women and National Day of Teresa de Benguela. “In these two events, I was able to record how the garments took on a political action. It was clear that those youth were eager to have a black proagonism. Especially the women. Anyway, clothing started to increase questions,” describes the researcher.

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Maria do Carmo believes that, with the demonstrations and the female and young protagonism, the black movement has been reinvigorated in recent years. “And fashion, of course, has been fulfilling its role,” she says. According to the researcher, the discourses of young protesters didn’t always result from a knowledge of what, in fact, the black movement is. “But the clothes end up leading to reflection and the search for information about the history of resistance of the black movement in Brazil from the diaspora,” says Maria do Carmo.

New Market

The dressing of clothes of African origin, in general, is more voluminous and mixes printed plain fabrics, as Maria do Carmo informs us. “The textile industry itself has also started to work more on this mixture of colors and prints, including knitwear,” she observes. In addition to costumes and accessories, the demonstrations also opened up space for entrepreneurs. That was when “Afro-entrepreneurs” started offering beauty products and cosmetics for black people.

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As part of the study, the researcher interviewed and analyzed the growth of this market in recent years. As an example, she cites Isaac Silva, a young stylist and black designer who is established in São Paulo. “Even going through a fashion college, the career of this professional was not easy. He had a hard time positioning himself due to the discrimination he suffered. For this reason, he decided to undertake and build his own brand,” says Maria do Carmo.

Another situation analyzed by the researcher was the Rede Kilofé de Economia de Negras e Negros do Ceará, which also participates with its products during the Orgulho Crespo and Dia da Mulher Negra (Black Woman’s Day) marches. “These are events that, in addition to being an opportunity for several entrepreneurs, are also raising awareness. After walking the streets of the city, there are meetings and rounds of conversations in which themes related to racism and racial discrimination are debated,”emphasizes the researcher.

Maria do Carmo does not point out in the city of São Paulo a specific pole for Afro-Brazilian fashion, but she notes that, in many stores, there are already spaces for the sale of these outfits. “Even if a certain store or boutique does not have this concern, it ends up working with some product”, she points out. According to her, one way for Afro-Brazilian fashion to gain more space is to follow the guideline recommended by Isaac Silva, which is “to deconstruct the idea that Afro fashion is intended only for blacks”. “He, in his store, also works with conventional products”, recalls the researcher.

Source: Jornal USP

About Marques Travae 3476 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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