Carol Tulloch, Professor of Dress, Diaspora and Transnationalism at the University of the Arts London, shares excerpts from the introduction of her new book The Birth Of Cool: Style Narratives Of The African Diaspora
This book has been inspired by a range of images - photographs, paintings and text that form portraits, biographies and autobiographies of black women and men from different parts of the African diaspora. They have engendered a need in me to seek out the possible cultural meanings and contributions that the style narratives featured in the images of the lives of individuals and groups as a contributory factor in, and comment on, the societies and cultures they inhabit. The work considers how moments in history and an associated image can lend alternative perspectives of black identities, aesthetics and history across the African diaspora. Some of the individuals and groups discussed here are world-famous, others are part of the underrated everyday existence of so called ordinary people.
This study has also been informed by images of my subconscious, memories of the myriad styles worn by black men, women and children that have been part of my life. I was born in the 1950s in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, England and was fortunate to grow up with the so called “first generation” of post-World War II migrants and immigrants who travelled from different parts of the then British Empire and Commonwealth. From childhood through to adulthood I witnessed amongst this group, and their descendants, how deftly they marked out their lives through the styling of their bodies that consequently became part of the holistic making of themselves, if often in contentious and potentially debilitating contexts. For some cool was and is a necessary goal and a palpable achievement. Those spectral images and existentialist endeavours are always with me and have been the major inspiration to write this book.
This time it’s personal
I once asked my father if it became compulsory for all men to wear flared trousers, what would he do? He replied, “Go in the nuddy [nude]”. I laughed at his response, thinking he was just old fashioned. I must have been about eleven or twelve and my idea of a well-dressed man came in the form of Jimi Hendrix who reigned supreme in such pants. This was the period of revolutionary dress for the young.
My dad was fastidious about his clothing. His suits were always bespoke, he believed in the best quality fabrics you could afford. His ties were the area in which he could really demonstrate some flair. I remember he had a plain black silk one knitted in garter stitch, the epitome of the modernist ethic, with its angular shape of square ends and straight sides. Another was made of cream silk, with pointed ends and gossamer threads of shimmery red, silver and gold pulled sporadically through the fine weave. He also wore tiepins. One had a jockey riding a horse, indicative of his fondness for horseracing. I cannot remember the shirts he wore with his suits, and I think he always wore black shoes, but his ties and his suits are what stick in my mind.
These items contrasted dramatically with my father’s weekday clothing that he wore when he was first a coal miner and then a power station construction worker. What I can remember were his checked, lumberjack-style shirt, and a pale blue rib-knit V-necked jumper. This latter item is indelibly printed on my mind as it remained hanging on my parents’ wardrobe door for days after my father was killed in a car accident in 1971. This “aesthetics of absence” (Ash 1996: 219) that is lodged in the style memories of my father, have stayed with me these forty-five years.
"What is fundamental here is the aesthetic of presence, a technique of being to counter the aesthetics of invisibility that people of the African diaspora have had to overcome since slavery"
The image of my father well dressed in a two-piece suit and tie is how I want to preserve the visual memory of him. This version of Alfred Valentine Tulloch (1930–1971) is reinforced in the only photograph that exists of him taken in Birmingham in the mid-1950s following his arrival from Jamaica, a print of which was sent to relations back home. I will never know what prompted my father to have the photograph taken, why he chose that composition of garments to have his photograph taken in. What were the colors of his suit, shirt, tie and shoes? Was that jacket his, as it seems a little big around the neck? Was it ready- or tailor-made, purchased in England or brought over from Jamaica? Where was the tie pin from? Why was his hair natural rather than conked, African-American vernacular for straightened hair, as this was an acceptable alternative hairstyle-choice for black men at the time? So many questions that will go unanswered as the people who could provide the answers have passed away. Of course, as Stuart Hall has said, from the moment the photograph was taken to my looking at it numerous times over the many years, layer upon layer of “meaning [slides] across the frame. It is difficult, if not by now impossible, to recapture some of its earlier, historical meanings… the search for an ‘essential, true original’ meaning is an illusion. No such previously natural moment of true meaning, untouched by the codes and social relations production and reading, exists” (Hall 1984: 2–3).
Essentially, what the studio portrait does provide for me is an image of my father as a young man, before the period of having a family and the consequent patriarchal responsibility. At the time of his death in 1971 my father was just one of the millions of people in Britain who were still “hidden from history”- people of difference based on “race”, class, gender and sexuality. What his styled body in this photograph does for me is to place Alf, as he was also known, as part of his fellow generation of Jamaicans and other Caribbeans who migrated to Britain in the first half of the 1950s, and situates him squarely as part of that celebrated moment of British history. Therefore this photograph joins the “body of evidence”- both in terms of styled bodies and the wealth of photographs of Caribbean and African men, women and children during the period of post-war migration held in archives such as the Ernest Dyche Collection at Birmingham Central Library, and the Harry Jacobs Archive at Lambeth Archives, London, “where people were, at a certain stage of life and how they imagined themselves, how they became ‘persons’” (Hall 1984: 5).
Indeed, my father may well have had his photograph taken at the Ernest Dyche Studios, as it was taken in Birmingham, the city he chose as his first place to live on migrating to England. Unlike the usual scenario of the anonymity of the sitter in images held in the Dyche and other collections, there is a biography attached to my father’s photograph, the life he lived with my mother after the photograph was taken. The photographs of my parents were obviously taken at the same studio in Birmingham - the backdrop and table are the same, the vase in each portrait is of similar design. Did my parents go separately before they met or did they go to the photographic studio together once they became a couple? Another question that will never be answered. The photograph of my mother as a young woman is, nonetheless, enlightening. It reaffirms qualities that came to define the styled self of Cetira Emmeline Thomas (née Green, born 1924) until her death in 2010. In this photograph, my mother is incredibly smart. All the elements of her style are in harmony. Her belted dress, with its ruched sleeve detail and demure length, reverberates respectability, which is echoed by her neat shell-shaped hat. A desire for ornamentation is expressed through my mother’s handbag and the use of what appears to be a handkerchief that hangs from it. This detail lends an air of leisured time.
"The book is an acknowledgement of cool as an expansive diasporic act of black aesthetics, as well as cool being a critical tool in the projection of the aesthetic of presence"
Regardless of these speculations, the information that is missing from my father’s and my mother’s photographic documentation is, as mentioned above, why did they choose what they wore for this photographic sitting? Again, questions that cannot be answered categorically, like the range of styles worn by the women and men in this book. In the spirit of one of the aims of The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora, to read the identities and style narratives of visual and textual images of black people, my mother’s handbag is a significant marker of her desire for adventure and agency; she travelled alone to England, and the accessory acts as a hinge between her past and future. As Adam Phillips has said: “It is in the gap between the life she has and the life she wants that a woman chooses a bag… a bag always links her to her history in an uncanny way. Bags are useful because they are evocative… they remind us of many things… What these psychoanalytic stories want us to wonder is how a handbag fits into the pattern and the project of a woman’s life. The stories warn us away from trivializing these objects. Indeed, they want us to believe that ‘What’s in a bag?’ is the most urgent question we ever ask” (2012: 30). An urgent question I ask, what do the style narratives of the African diaspora mean?
I am in agreement with Tina C. Campt that, regardless of whether the sitter in a photograph is known or not, “it is equally important to theorize how such photographs function as images and as practices of social and cultural enunciation that exceed their biographical details” (Campt 2012: 196). What is fundamental here, as illustrated in the photographs of my mother and father, and a key thread that runs through this book is the aesthetic of presence, a technique of being to counter the aesthetics of invisibility that people of the African diaspora have had to overcome since slavery. It is a further aim of this publication to engage with moments of articulation in the aesthetics of presence in different parts of the African diaspora through style narratives.
Cool: an aesthetic of presence across the African diaspora
The growing number of books on the history and cultural meaning of cool, which ranges from sunglasses, architecture and capitalism, has cool originating in the USA. Indeed Peter N. Stearns declares that “[C]ool. The concept is distinctly American, and it permeates almost every aspect of contemporary American Culture” (1994: 1). Robert Farris Thompson is a leading academic on cool with his seminal texts of the 1960s and 1970s: “An Aesthetic of the Cool: West African Dance” (1966), “An Aesthetic of the Cool” (1973), and “An Introduction to Transatlantic Black Art History: Remarks in Anticipation of a Coming Golden Age of Afro-Americana” (1974). Thompson links the articulation of cool amongst African-Americans to Africa in order to provide what he calls cool as “historical depth” (Thompson  2011: 19). He defined an aesthetic of the cool as “in the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and of play” (Thompson  2011: 16), and that the “mask” of coolness is worn in times of stress and pleasure “in fields of expressive performance [and dance]” (Thompson  2011: 16). Of particular note in this context is Thompson’s elaboration that cool in some West, Central and East African languages means newness, rebirth (Thompson  2011: 16), that is part of the heritage that Thompson believes informs the multi-dimensional interpretations of what he categorized as “black cool”: “Black Cool is an idiom of social balance… and internal or spiritual balance, the sign of clear conscience… when one returns to oneself in an ideal sense, achieving or rediscovering character, when what one does and what one ought to be are one” (Thompson 1974: 196).
Rebecca Walker sees “Black Cool” as captivation (2012: xi–xvi). This concept was crystallized for her in Barack Obama during the 2008 USA presidential elections. She was “captivated” by his style of dress and his poise: “Obama emerges from a sleek, black Town Car wearing dark sunglasses, a suit, and a red tie. This is all, and yet, in this picture, Obama is indisputably cool. He is so, so cool I cannot turn away from the image… It is Black Cool. It is made up of elements that can be traced back to a place, a people, and a culture” (Walker 2012: xiv–xv). Apparently this “captivation” of cool was something that the jazz artist Thelonius Monk experienced whilst “staring up at a picture of Billie Holiday tacked to the ceiling praying for the essence of cool” (MacAdams 2001: 61). Walker asks that a “periodic table of Black Cool, element by element” be developed (Walker 2012: xvi).
An aim of The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora is to provide other possible meanings of cool as expressed across the African diaspora at different times. The book is an acknowledgement of cool as an expansive diasporic act of black aesthetics, as well as cool being a critical tool in the projection of the aesthetic of presence.
Images courtesy of Carol Tulloch, Bloomsbury and Getty