Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2017
Carol Tulloch The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora London: Bloomsbury, 2016. 272 pp.; 9 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Hardcover $23.99 (9781474262873)

With so much attention given to the music of the black diaspora in recent years, scholars of race have perhaps neglected other areas of popular culture, in particular fashion and style. But has fashion really been critical to the forging of racial and ethnic identity? Carol Tulloch seems to think so, hence her fascinating book brings together discussions of race, style, aesthetics, diasporic identities, and modernity.

Black style has had a huge impact on twentieth-century fashion. Its absence within social history, cultural studies, and fashion studies is surprising. This is why Tulloch’s work on the emergence and enduring significance of black style is a welcome addition to the literature. The book takes its name from the jazz album by Miles Davis, a reminder that the very concept of “cool” is decidedly black. If style implies surface, for Tulloch the idea of cool is so much more than that, in her words “an expansive diasporic act of black aesthetics” (4). Her exploration of a black aesthetic follows the various routes and connections forged by the black diaspora. She opens chapter three, appropriately, with a quote from the American writer James Baldwin: “History becomes a garment we can wear and share, and not a cloak in which to hide” (87). For Tulloch, dress is more than a surface effect; poetic and profound, it is simultaneously a place to hide and a visual form full of expressive potential. Like Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic, she identifies a transatlantic culture where structures of feeling transcend ethnicity and nationality to produce a distinctly black aesthetic. Where Gilroy focuses on literature and music, Tulloch looks to fashion, dress, and style.

Throughout the book, she traces the idea of cool through the images created by artists and musicians, but is more interested in everyday style narratives. She starts by describing her father’s dress: his bespoke suits, his beautiful silk ties and tie pins, all conjuring up an image of a proud self-styled man. A migrant from Jamaica, her father arrived in Britain in the 1950s along with many others from the Caribbean. Her approach weaves together popular memory and history to construct a sense of how, why, and where black identity has been expressed through dress. She explores images created by cultural icons, but she also gives due attention to the expressive possibilities of fashion and style in everyday life. She looks to the creative responses of people whose lives were shaped by, among other things, colonialism, forced migration, and racism. Each chapter explores a particular “style narrative”: the African-Jamaican higgler, Harlem style in the 1930s, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, and the Steve Biko T-shirt. The last chapter explores various sources—including photographs and letters—to describe black British style in the twentieth century.

Tulloch offers a range of images of black style as a way to explore the historical context for their emergence. For instance, Tulloch uses the image of the female African-Jamaican market trader, colloquially known as the higgler in the nineteenth century, to reveal visibility to be a double-edged sword. Classic images are often those favored by advocates of settler colonialism for the distorted reality they convey. As such, Tulloch paints a picture of the higgler as a visual symbol of colonial discourse; “the whiteness of the African-Jamaican higgler’s style became symbolic of her place as an economic saviour on the island” (53). Her appearance in the visual culture of the nineteenth century was evidence that she had been commodified to serve colonial views of sexual politics in the Caribbean.

In contrast to the higgler, Tulloch explores the image and distinctive style of Billie Holiday, a figure of modernity, a musical innovator, but also a style icon, particularly in the 1940s. By focusing on Holiday’s image, she identifies a distinct counterculture of modernity, and the jazz singer emerges as black female dandy. Tulloch offers a convincing portrait of an artist searching for creative ways to transform and subvert the clothes of white people to make them meaningful to black experience. She builds a picture of Holiday as a collage of myths: the gardenia corsage, her trademark ponytail hairstyle, twinset knitwear, and white gowns all formed rich style narratives. For Tulloch, Holiday’s changing image represented the aesthetic strategies of the new black woman, and despite heroin addiction she “carved out a system of how to live, dress, and socialize as an independent woman” (126). Her clever negotiation of masculine independence and female masquerade was key to her survival as a black woman artist in turbulent times.

Tulloch’s reading of Malcolm X’s autobiography demonstrates that style was not just a vexing question for women; for men it was also a critical part of the technology of the self and often a tool of resistance. Malcolm X was, after all, “acutely aware of the powerful poetry of self-adornment” (128). Style was critical to forging solidarity and asserting self-identity in the civil rights era and made visible the growing black consciousness of 1960s America. In an inspiring passage, Tulloch draws attention to questions of visibility in times of crisis and political battle. Malcolm X was creative, studied, and strategic in his use of dress, and, as she points out, “Malcolm X made sure that people could see him. To see him was to be constantly reminded of the charge of a new black America” (150). In this way, the book goes beyond dress; its clever intersections of race, class, and history help us to understand why style matters. After all, in times of crisis, we have only our bodies. Fashion is a pleasure, and part of consumer culture, but in this book we get a sense of how critical it can be to life stories. The styled body is where pleasures and pains are inscribed.

The discussion in the book is wide-ranging; we get a glimpse of black identities forged in the Caribbean of the nineteenth century and in New York and London of the twentieth century. Clearly, dress, style, appearance, and clothing all play a critical role in our lives, all too often neglected by scholars of social history and material culture. Tulloch not only adds to the growing literature in this area but also demonstrates style’s critical role in marking social and political change. While the case studies are compelling and the discussion inspiring, the book can at times lack a clear focus. Many chapters suffer from a dizzying array of headings and sections. In particular, the last chapter might have been better integrated with the rest; it did not quite fit the narrative structure of the book.

What the book does, though, is something rare: it makes a refreshing contribution to fashion studies, a field that is all too often white, Eurocentric, and concerned only with what the industry produces for our consumption. Tulloch demonstrates that the field of fashion studies can do so much more; in particular, it can turn its attention to the intriguing ways in which people use style to negotiate crisis and complexity. The book manages to take figures we thought we knew, such as Holiday and Malcolm X, and tell whole new stories about them. Tulloch reveals how personal style statements can be a rich source in the study of race histories. Most of all, though, she reclaims style—and cool—from consumer culture, and in the process highlights the intersections between race, class, and history. 

Jane Tynan
Senior Lecturer, MA Fashion Critical Studies, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London