In a world of fast fashion and TikTok trends, being the blueprint means nothing if you don’t know what you’re building. Black people have been the blueprint for American culture since its inception, and continue to forge new visions and paths into the future.
In honor of where we’re going and where we’ve been, the Kansas City Defender is officially launching our first fashion column!
Each article will highlight Black people from all over Kansas City, and explore their personal style. In doing so, we’re going to look at the roots, inspiration, and unique influences.
This article explores the styles worn by one of the most iconic and recognizable organizations in American history, the Black Panther Party.
The “uniform” of the Black Panther Party varied based on the images you find but maintained consistent characteristics across all media. For those who may not be extensively familiar, the Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California in 1966. Originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, it was later shortened to The Black Panthers.
They were a Black, revolutionary group, widely known for their community survival programs such as their Free Breakfast Program for Children, their free mental health services, and for radically new practices like arriving on the scene where arrests of Black people were taking place, armed with their own rifles and ensuring the police followed the law. While they spent the majority of their time and resources on their survival programs, the media often portrayed them as a militant organization. They also created a 10-Point Program that outlined their ideology as anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and Marxist just to name a few.
The Panthers were public relations geniuses who purposefully utilized aesthetics and fashion to produce media spectacles and gain more publicity to further their political aims.
The black beret was a sign of militarism. Common among military officers, it was a sign of power. When the Black body had no government to cling to for help, the people went inside themselves to find their footing. The beret was a symbol of strength and a unified cause.
Next came the leather jacket. In all honesty, it was born out of convenience. The Panther’s founders, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale shared the idea that “Every young black man has a black leather jacket or can get one or can borrow one if they can’t buy one.” This was a fair statement because not every jacket in any given picture was the same. The jacket was unisex and, for the first time, incorporated Black women in a way that centered on the Black experience and not just the Black male experience. That’s not to say misogyny wasn’t alive and well, but this was one step towards a truly gender-less movement.
The black turtleneck was another way to achieve uniformity when it came to non-conformity. As far as fashion is concerned, I love a good turtleneck. They’re comfortable and quirky. Turtlenecks symbolize creative genius to the people of the present, but to the Panthers, they were a way to look like one body. Literally and metaphorically.
Sunglasses helped in concealing identities and protecting the Panthers from the eyes of the police. The style is still worn today, across many peaceful and active protests. It is reflected in the styles of students and social activists alike, for example in our first highlight:
John Mcgee, a student at Lincoln College Prep Academy and advocate for change, emulates the style. He is known for his advocacy for Black and brown students, his outfits, and his being a nuisance in the halls.
Being in Debate is one of his outlets, as well as a place to emulate the great Panthers that came before us. When asked about his clothing choices, John said this: “Like, wearing clothes like I’ve got on in the picture helps me feel closer to the socio-political movements of yesterday, giving me a sense of pride and strength”. John’s style, while modernized, is a reflection of his beliefs and of the impact, the Panthers had on fashion in the political world.
As the Black Panthers maintained uniformity, they also maintained a place in politics that has leaked into the world of fashion. Being the blueprint means starting from the ground up; it’s expressing who we are. The Panthers and people like John, continue to use clothing to bring awareness to the roots of Black Americans.