The fashion story behind the Oscar-nominated 2021 movie Judas and the Black Messiah, which details the final months of the Black Panther Fred Hampton’s life in 1969 before he’s betrayed by William O’Neal, an FBI informant, isn’t just one about the Black Panthers’ uniform of leather jacket and beret. It’s also about natural hair.
The seeds of the natural hair movement and the anti-discrimination Crown act (Tucson, Arizona, became the latest city to adopt the law last week) were sown by the Black Panthers, the film’s hair stylist told the Guardian.
“[They] were saying ‘no’ through (their) hair,” says Rebecca Woodfork, who also worked on Marvel’s Black Panther. “The breakaway from harsh chemicals [to] embracing the natural texture of black hair was much deeper than a breakup from a partner. For black American revolutionaries, such as the Black Panthers, it was a breakup from America.”
She says that it was a new chapter of a hair journey that had been weaponised since the beginning of slavery. The Black Panthers subverted the expectations placed on black hair.
“During this time the relaxers and chemicals that did not celebrate our natural hair textures were no longer going to be the status quo,” Woodfork says. “Making this statement was empowering and defied the demands put upon people of color in America.”
But it was also met with prejudice and “the assumption that you were unkempt, not professional, ‘too black’ and of lesser value to the social system”, she says. These prejudices still exist today: 93% of black people have experienced microaggressions in relation to their hair.
The Black Panthers’ aesthetic is displayed on screen. The sleek, anti-establishment look was itself a reaction to the formal look of the previous era of civil rights, embodied by Martin Luther King, which was seen as “bourgeois” by the younger radicals.
“Just as Black Power was a more assertive type of anti-race movement started by people who were disillusioned with the earlier civil rights movements, their clothes were also a more assertive statement,” says Richard Thompson Ford, author of Dress Codes. “[It was] a rejection of what they saw as the ‘accommodationist’ style of the Martin Luther King Jr generation.”
The look chimed with that of the 60s youth culture and doubled as a form of sartorial protection. “The origins of the Panther uniform was to conceal identities,” says Charlese Antoinette, costume director for Judas and the Black Messiah.
“They used items that were readily available: sunglasses and leather jackets. In the case of the Illinois party, they wore a lot of camo jackets in protests of the draft and the Vietnam war.”
Items of concealment also included the beret, which became a signature part of the Panther uniform. “According to [the Black Panthers co-founder] Huey P Newton, it was the international symbol of revolutionaries,” Antoinette says.
Elements of the look are still being used today to semaphore black power, from the cover of British Vogue’s September issue to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance, and Antoinette believes the look has stood the test of time because of “its sleek, clean, minimal silhouettes” and the fact that it consists of items that are easily found.
“Transforming these everyday items into political statements also reminds me of this quote by Huey P Newton,” she says: “‘Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.’”