art exhibits

A Lesson in Black Fashion History

Photo: Beau McCall

Wearable art isn’t new, it’s been the norm — a lifestyle, really — for Black people in New York, especially in Harlem. Fifty-five years ago, the Harlem Institute of Fashion (HIF) was founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane, and a few years later, the institute hosted its very own fashion shows for Harlem Week. These shows lasted from 1979 to 1996, but the spirit and style that these streets saw never ended. Today, the exhibit “Showing Out: Fashion in Harlem” at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is paying homage to the legendary art that was the heart of HIF and Harlem Week. Guest curated by Souleo, the Harlem pop-up features archival images, costumes, video footage of the runway shows, physical archival material like old runway programs, and more. “A big part of why we’re doing this exhibition is because so many of the records were lost when [HIF] closed. Hopefully this will help to remember [these moments] and be able to identify some of these people,” Souleo tells the Cut.

Souleo knew he had to curate this exhibit when, sifting through his partner Beau McCall’s closet one day, he stumbled across runway show images from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in Harlem. Instantly captivated, he thought that more people should know about what McCall and other Black creatives were doing back then. That’s when “Showing Out” was born. “I really wanted to amplify this legacy for today’s generation and even for older generations who somehow overlooked what was happening with the Harlem Institute of Fashion,” he says.

Souleo’s goal: to amplify Black history documented by Black people in a country that often turns a blind eye to us until it becomes “trendy.” Without archival photos and video footage, it’d be easy to say this never existed or happened, and Souleo refuses for these memories to be erased. He wants visitors to leave the exhibit feeling inspired, not only by the art on display but also inspired to support other Black fashion organizations who are currently doing the work. We’re rewriting history, and we are history, and it deserves to be documented every step of the way.

Below is a sneak preview of what to expect from “Showing Out: Fashion in Harlem.” These archival images capture the quintessential soul that Black people in Harlem possessed and displayed through fashion. The exhibit opens today and will last through September 16 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Photo: Beau McCall

“Tonya Jackson — she’s one of the models I was really hoping to locate. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find where she is now, but she was one of the most popular models for the runway shows. She was in almost every runway they did over those years. I was told that she went on to have a campaign with Dark & Lovely hair-care products. She definitely used it as a launching pad. It was great to see that she got something like that out of her experiments with the Harlem Institute of Fashion. But, I love this particular photo.

Think about fashion today and how we’re all experiencing fashion shows, but we have to see some of them through social media because we’re not invited. These shows were by the people, for the people. It was free and open to everyone to experience and really helping to democratize fashion in that sense and really making it about a community experience, not this exclusive, high-end, only if you have money can you experience the garment. No, this was for everyone. I loved this because it really captures that energy.”

Photo: Karl Crutchfield

“This is by one of the feature designers in the exhibition, Queen Bilquis a.k.a. Cynthia Harmon, and she has an incredible backstory. At 15 years old, she embraced Islam and started to create designs [that reflected that]. Her fashion [stems] from her identity as a Black Muslim woman and wanting to have clothing options for that demographic that represents their faith inheritance while still being stylish. She was doing this back then in the mid-1980s, but it still connects to today’s modest fashion trends, where it’s about not showing as much skin and keeping [clothing] in line with one’s faith or personal preference. 

She was one of the most popular designers of these runway shows when she was showing from 1987 to 1991 because she embraced Black culture and Black faith and gave those women an opportunity to still represent on the runway. And I love this because it’s just so dramatic. I can see this on Drag Race because of that high collar, the flare in the garment, the skirt, and the train. It gives you all of that extravaganza! That’s why I definitely wanted this in there. Also, the material is taffeta, one we’re seeing popping back up on the runways with designers incorporating it. Everything old is new again.”

Photo: Beau McCall

“One of the reasons I chose this is because she is selling the garment and she is proud. She is happy [and] she is joyful. And so, I really wanted to celebrate how fashion, especially within Black culture, is a way of expressing ourselves, finding joy and asserting who we are. And I think with her stance, with this pose, she is doing all of that and more. As a curator, [some of these images] may not be exactly my taste in fashion or at least or what the taste and fashion is today, but it captures a moment in time. That is just as important because you can see the evolution of fashion through that process, whether you like the garment or not, it still is important to the narrative and history.

This definitely captured the moment of flamboyance, theatrical, very costume-like fashion, which is important as well. I just love this because she is so in her moment. I think you see a lot of that through the images. You see them enjoying who they were, who they are, not giving a damn.”

A Lesson in Black Fashion History