Dressed in Dreams: A New Book about the Power of Black Fashion

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion was published today by St. Martin Press.


The author of Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion is Tanisha C. Ford, an award-winning writer, cultural critic, and historian. She is also the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, which won the 2016 Organization of American Historians’ Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, and Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful. Ford’s work centers on social movement history, feminist issues, material culture, the built environment, Black life in the Rust Belt, girlhood studies, and fashion, beauty, and body politics. Her scholarship has been published in the Journal of Southern HistoryNKA: Journal of Contemporary African Artthe Black Scholar, and QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. Ford’s public writing and cultural commentary have been featured in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Elle, and The Root. Her research has been supported by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Ford is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. Follow her on Twitter @SoulistaPhD.

From sneakers to leather jackets, a bold, witty, and deeply personal dive into Black America’s closet. In this highly engaging book, fashionista and pop culture expert Tanisha C. Ford investigates Afros and dashikis, go-go boots and hotpants of the sixties, hip hop’s baggy jeans and bamboo earrings, and the #BlackLivesMatter-inspired hoodies of today.

The history of these garments is deeply intertwined with Ford’s story as a Black girl coming of age in a Midwestern rust belt city. She experimented with the Jheri curl; discovered how wearing the wrong color tennis shoes at the roller rink during the drug and gang wars of the 1980s could get you beaten; and rocked oversized, brightly colored jeans and Timberlands at an elite boarding school where the white upper crust wore conservative wool shift dresses.

Dressed in Dreams is a story of desire, access, conformity, and Black innovation that explains things like the importance of knockoff culture; the role of “ghetto fabulous” full-length furs and colorful leather in the 1990s; how Black girls make magic out of a dollar store t-shirt, rhinestones, and airbrushed paint; and Black parents’ emphasis on dressing nice. Ford talks about the pain of seeing Black style appropriated by the mainstream fashion industry and fashion’s power, especially in middle America. In this richly evocative narrative, she shares her lifelong fashion revolution—from figuring out her own personal style to discovering what makes Midwestern fashion a real thing too.

A rich and exciting book that focuses on family love, girlhood, the Black arts movement, and the closet. I loved this book. I am still smiling and embracing my memories of coming of age and creating and finding multiple identities while styling in and out of my own closet. Groundbreaking.” —Deborah Willis, New York University and author of Posing Beauty

J.T. Roane: Books have creation stories. Please share with us the creation story of your book—those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book. 

Tanisha Ford: I wrote Dressed in Dreams largely because when I went into my favorite bookstores, I didn’t see books that told Black girl stories of our clothes and why fashion matters to us. Instead, I—like millions of other Black girls—was inundated with books and magazine articles on how the Kardashians “invented” one style or another (from “boxer braids” to “aquarium nails”) while I sat back like, “we Black girls been rockin’ alladat!” I wanted to write a love letter to Black girls that placed our style front and center.

I’ve spent the past decade exploring Black adornment. Initially, I was interested in studying how and why Black women incorporated fashion into their activist strategies in the 1960s Black Freedom movement era. That research developed into my first book, Liberated Threads. As I traveled around the country—and sometimes internationally—giving talks on that book, there would always be people in the audience who wanted to tell their dressed body stories. The audience members seemed to find joy in sharing bits of themselves and their life experiences, with complete strangers, in a space that I’d made feel safe simply by declaring that clothes matter and that fashion history is worthy of rigorous inquiry. Their public storytelling got me thinking: there’s a piece of this thing that I’m missing, that I can’t interrogate fully using traditional historical methods alone. After I began reading material culture theory, I realized there’s power in getting dressed that goes beyond the forms of structured activism that I focused on in Liberated Threads. There is also this little “p” politics, or the everyday pleasures of stylin’ outshowin’ off, drippin’. Those sometimes fleeting delights help to emotionally buoy people from historically oppressed groups as we combat hyper-policing, surveillance, and other forms of social violence daily. Our garments, then, are archives of memories—individual and collective, material and emotional—that tell these rich, textured stories of our lives. I needed to connect with that piece of the Black style story, to explain things like why having Big Mama’s fox fur coat passed down to you is an honor unlike any other, or how a pair of bamboo earrings can make you feel like the flyest girl on the block. And it was refreshing to produce a book in which I was able to openly feel on the page and write in a way that would move others to feel—a whole range of emotions—as they traveled along with me on an odyssey through Black America’s closet.

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.