Where Do Black Women Fit Into the Vintage-Clothing Revolution?
This truth is why Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter — who built her career dressing actors like Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's period piece Malcolm X and Chadwick Boseman in the afrofuturistic Black Panther — knows vintage shopping is both a treat and a necessity for women who don't have Rihanna's fashion budget.
"I think we've always been defining personal style with vintage," says Carter of Black women. "I remember Joie Lee walking onto the set of Do The Right Thing, and she had on a vintage 1950s casual cotton dress, and I thought, 'Oh, that's so perfect.' She really stood out from the pack."
Contemporary fashion is a mix of high and low, and the most celebrated looks are old and juxtaposed with something that doesn't seem like it should match at all. Rare finds are the crown jewel of Carter's work, especially when she's digging up garments from bygone eras, like the luxurious mink coat she put on Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It, or when she rifled through the basement of an Italian men's store in Brooklyn, to find long-collared shirts for Delroy Lindo — father of that — in Crooklyn, Lee's 1970s coming-of-age story. This ability to tell a story through clothing is part of why Carter is currently serving as an ambassador for the Black woman-owned online platform , a connector for vintage stores across the country, to share their inventory with television and film costume designers. She dug through those shirt mountains so we don't have to.
"I'm so excited to partner with Thrilling, because it aligns with who I was," says Carter, of her knack for finding sartorial needles in haystacks. "For Malcolm X, I traveled to Chicago and bought coats from a vintage collector's old warehouse where there were piles and piles of coats [just for] that scene where Denzel comes out of the movie theater in a zoot suit." In , you can shop an abstract '90s poncho (a trend that's firmly on the comeback), Gucci sneakers, vintage Louboutin pumps, and earrings representing pretty much any decade you'd want to recall, with items starting at $15 and cruising up through the triple digits.
In Carter's line of work, era-specific clothing is often needed to tell a story, but vintage is enjoying a popular celebrity moment too. It girls like Zoe Kravitz and Zendaya are leading the charge and the latter's frequent stylist Law Roach touts a deep personal vintage collection. In 2021, Roach dressed the Euphoria star in a haute couture YSL gown formerly owned by Eunice Johnson, the founder of Ebony Fashion Fair cosmetics and took the night at the . For the Euphoria premiere this January, Zendaya wore a strapless, black-and-white striped Valentino jumpsuit (pictured at top) first worn by Linda Evangelista in 1992 — a resounding yes.
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Instead, if you see a mint condition 1990s No Limit Records jersey long enough to be a dress and feel it would go well without pants along with sparkly, strappy Amina Muaddi stilettos and a Goyard bag in the dead of winter, then congratulations, you have successfully tapped into look and elevated it. Also congratulations for being literal Rihanna in this recent . Like Zendaya's red carpet moments attest, an outfit that reaches back to a pop culture moment and pushes it to another level is stylish brilliance. If inspired to try your own hand at this, check out , an all-encompassing vintage experience that brings Black culture to the fore through archival pieces, clothing, interior decoration, even prop and set design and, yes, they're Black-owned.
An obvious upside to crate-digging for clothes is doing your own small part to reduce waste, but there's also something decentralizing about the rise of vintage shopping and styling. While there are well-reported fashion trends like the 1990s resurgence, including my favorite shade of quirky Daria green, integrating gently used clothing opens up one's imagination. It allows you to circumvent, to , "the people in this room," and do your own thing.
That's what Black and brown people have been doing for ages, whether through our fashion, music, art, food, you name it — think Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on . We take things that aren't seen as high fashion or desirable and make it fly, so fly that the world chases us for the goods (mass-produces them, and then ruins the fly thing, so we move on to something else). Consider nameplate jewelry, a style popularized on the necks of Black and brown women, which are now central to a slew of Instagram brands that respond in long-winded nos when customers like me ask if their company is Black- or brown-owned. Fashion, like time in this pandemic, is a flat circle.
The State of the Arts is InStyle's biannual celebration of the Black creativity and excellence driving fashion, beauty, self-care, and the culture at large.
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