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Denim and especially denim in the form of “blue jeans” is often thought of as the American contribution to fashion worldwide, but the story of how this came to be leaves out the hefty contributions of enslaved people. This more complex, less whitewashed story was told during a panel discussion called “Denim & The African Diaspora: A Legacy Untold” at Denim Days, a celebration of all things denim that took place on June 8 at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Pavilion.

Moderator Whitney R. McGuire, an attorney for Creative Entrepreneurs and Co-Founder of Sustainable Brooklyn, launched the talk by saying that denim is more than “cotton, indigo, and rivets.” “Denim is a symbol of American idealism,” she said, and yet the contributions of people of color to its development often go unrecognized. “The descendants of enslaved Africans have created this beautiful fabric of culture and experience for the entire world to partake in.”

And of course, denim did not start out as what we think of as fashion. Activist and creator of Harlem-based sustainable denim brand Oak & Acorn Miko Underwood traced the origins of denim, which was originally a poor quality cloth, most often made of cotton, linen, or hemp that was used by slaveholders to clothe the enslaved. This cloth was sewn into simple but durable work wear by slaves themselves. ” At that time, explained Underwood, this cloth was known as “Negro Cloth” or “Slave Cloth” and was “unfit for anyone else to wear except for slaves.”

Kimberly M. Jenkins, an educator and researcher affiliated with Parsons School of Design and the curator of The Fashion and Race Database Project, described how, at different times, in different regions of the United States, denim was even looked down upon as an “unrespectable” thing to wear until it was eventually reclaimed as a symbol of solidarity with the worker. It was worn by those protesting for civil rights, and now it has become a staple of streetwear and hip hop culture.

african diaspora denim days
L to R: Jonathan M. Square, a Harvard scholar and founder of Fashioning The Self; Kimberly M. Jenkins, fashion researcher and the curator of The Fashion and Race Database Project; activist and creator of Harlem-based sustainable denim brand Oak & Acorn Miko Underwood. Photo by Anita Irlen.

Denim is an integral part of African American history, and as such, also an integral part of the history of enslaved people, the people who even today are often the ones producing “fashion.” “Forced labor is a really important driver of the fashion industry then and now,” said Jonathan M. Square, a Harvard scholar and founder of Fashioning The Self. It was slavery that resulted in the spread of “blue gold” and the love of cloth dyed with indigo worldwide.

Even the blue indigo color that we think of when we envision denim has surprising origins. It is from a natural dye from the indigofera tinctoria plant that’s indigenous to West Africa. In the 1700s, as the slave trade grew, knowledge of the plant and its cultivation traveled from West Africa to the United States with the enslaved. Before sugar, before cotton, indigo was the most profitable crop in parts of the South, so much so that it was once even used as currency. The slave trade, as the panelists described, was fed on both denim and indigo. And thus the history of the iconic blue jean is forever connected to slavery and the history of the African Diaspora.

The slave trade, as the panelists described, was fed on both denim and indigo.

Most of the 30 odd exhibitors at New York’s Denim Days were engaged in some form of recycling, upcycling, or other sustainable aspect of denim production.

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