I have always liked cosplay and to dress in period costume. From a little girl dressing extravagantly every Halloween, to my early career on stage, to Comic Cons and costume parties, it has long been a peculiar passion. I am a stickler about authenticity (to the best of my ability to get it right and afford it). My particular interest has always been in the layers of chemise, corset, petticoat, dress, hat, gloves, boots, parasol, fan all in exquisite fabrics from the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
When I recently renewed my interest and decided to purchase a stunning Edwardian outfit, I wondered what the hell is this black girl doing getting all dressed up in 19th century clothes? I make a point of avoiding the Civil War years like the plague. Too many negative connotations. Not that later years were a picnic for black folks, but I personally stay post 1870 (just after the 14th and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act were originally ratified). But even then, why was I drawn to these images of white ladies in pretty frocks? But I knew I was just as happy looking at Worth dresses on a mannequin, so it wasn't about who was wearing the clothes. Or was it? Were there black folks who dressed like this?
I caught sight of a framed photo of my great grandfather, buried behind other family photos. Dr. Bradford, had been a dentist in British Guyana in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Sitting right there in front of me was visual proof of a black Edwardian, dapper in his jacket, linen pants, bow tie, spectacles, shiny leather shoes and a fashionable cane.
I went on line and researched Black Victorian's and a host of beautiful, stunning, dramatic images came up. I was in seventh heaven. There I was, and my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my friends. We were represented. The accounts of Frederick Douglass' visits to Ireland and England were enlightening. It empowered me to know that the next event I wore my period costume to, it would represent a little known and rarely seen reality and be historically accurate. Anyone who dared to tell me "Oh, but you would have been a maid in that time" would have to suffer my backlash of "There was a black middle class! We were business owners, lawyers, teachers! We were even millionaires! (Madame C.J. Walker, who my 7 year old grandmother met in Ms.Walker's Irvington, NY home when Dr. Bradford brought grandma Elaine on a cruise to New York to celebrate her having survived the Spanish Influenza epidemic.)
Yes, there was history to be had and explored, and it was about my people. Literally. I became insatiably curious about who these Black Victorians and Edwardians were in New York and London. What were their lives like? Where did they live? What was their specific historical context? And, of course, what did they wear?
I decided to research all that I could and to start this blog to celebrate and inform. I've created a timeline of Black New York and London that spans the Victorian years (1837 - 1901) through to the end of the Edwardian era (1910). I will post the timeline along with photos, resources, historical facts, and anecdotes, as well as a chronicle of my costume building and events.
My 1910 white lace dress is on it's way. The white brocade corset arrived today and I'll try it on tomorrow. If you're willing to come on this journey with me, it promises to be an eye opening, fun, deep, disturbing and fascinating ride. Reclaiming the past in style.