Harlem’s Retro Fashion

African American Flapper from the Retro Harlem Days

World War I & II
The Great Depression 1930’s
The Art Deco Era 1910
Flapper Era 1920’s
Swing Time, The New Jazz Era
The 60’s 70’s

All are major points on the time line of American history that influenced Americans perception of the world and made profound impacts on our spirit, economy, global perspective, lifestyle choices. It affected how we  wanted to be perceived as a nation and as culture.  All of these eras are now considered “retro”.

With each era a new social, economic and spiritual evolution was taking place. Did we agree with the government policies of the day?  How did economic conditions influence our lifestyles?  Did we back our troops?  How did both economic prosperity and hard times make us feel?  To get some of these answers all you have to do is study the way we dressed.

Studying the Harlem New York retro style allows us to look at a culture that was impacted by the same everyday concerns as the rest of the world-but is often time forgotten in fashion history.  Harlem New York is rich in culture, diversity and fashion.


This style, popular in the 20’s, take us back to a time when ladies dressed for lunch, white gloves were the norm, gentlemen wore ascots and never left home with a walking stick and top hat.

The Harlem community was full of excitement and glamour that was reflected in the clothes popular at the time. Harlem was a mecca for flappers, chorus girls, jazz talent, velvet voiced club singers, rising stars and fashion galore.
The rise of such stars as Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, Dorothy Danedridge, Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers, Duke Ellington, Diahann Carroll, Sarah Vaughn and others led the way for Harlem community to look up to these stars and emulate their fashion taste.  Like today’s superstars, they influenced their fans to follow their fashion lead.

And lets not forget the Harlem debutantes with their elegance and graceful gowns that were the height of fashion.  Or Ophelia Devore who became internationally acclaimed and taught young ladies the art of gracefulness to go with those beautiful dresses.  And we must mention the Zoot Suit!

The Retro look represents a time we equate with prominence, elegance, good social upbringing and pride. Lavish Hollywood sets and big star names such as Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Lean Horne, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall to name a few-were synonymous with styles and trends.  All were fashionable ladies whose attire reflected their current times.  And fans couldn’t get enough of it, to the retailers’ delight.


Even today’s designers will go back in time to create “retro inspired trends” that hark back to the days of glamour or whim. And lets not exclude the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Check out two of my favorite books that profile African Americans and fashion influence. “The Way We Wore: Black Style Then” by Michael McMollom which is filled with African Americans dressed to reflect their current time. And “The Threads Of Time, The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present” by Rosemary Reed E. Miller. Both are rich in fashion history and the African American culture’s contribution to design and style from the past leading to the present.

We could also talk about the home sewers, fashion designers, small businesses and tailors from Harlem who helped make the trends happen for the community for less than their Park Avenue competitors.

alicia-keys-and-ladies-do-40s-retro-photo-opThe retro/ vintage look and Harlem create a unique history that strengthens the importance of African American involvement in fashion evolution. Harlem is not often thought of when referring to fashion trendsetters from eras gone by. This rich American history on the “fashion time line” should be explored more often. Doing so will allow us to enrich our knowledge and show us how regardless of culture, fashion like ourselves, evolves with each era to create a new “culture” image and a new chapter in fashion history.


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