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This Student Designer Is Representing Black Women’s History Through Fashion

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Models pose wearing a line designed by Cornell senior Rachel Powell. Images by Nadia May.

Rachel Powell is a senior at Cornell University, where, through the student-run Cornell Fashion Collective, she showcased her apparel collection, ROOTS, this spring.

We spoke to Powell about the inspiration for her timely and politically charged work, the importance of intersectionality, and the message behind some of her favorite pieces.

How did you get the idea for ROOTS?

The inspiration for ROOTS originally came after I read Maya Angelou’s poem, “My Guilt.” The last stanza resonated with me the most:

“My sin is ‘hanging from a tree’
I do not scream, it makes me proud.
I take to dying like a man.
I do it to impress the crowd.
My sin lies in not screaming loud.”

And you connected this poem to your experiences in terms of race, gender, society, and history?

For most of my life, I’ve been quiet and reserved. I’m a natural introvert. I haven’t historically enjoyed discussing issues that could be viewed as controversial, even if I had strong opinions about a topic. In retrospect, I feel like that stemmed from growing up in a predominantly White neighborhood. It was much easier to just assimilate into the community than to try to learn more about – much less serve as the voice of – my race. Even though I seemed to fit in, I always felt like there was a part of me that was missing.

During elementary school, I was taught the same monotonous, single-perspective, basic American history – like how Abraham Lincoln was our White savior and Malcolm X was the “bad guy” in comparison to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. History has so many gray areas, but the school system somehow refined it to make everything very black and white (pun intended), with little room for debate.

How does ROOTS take advantage of that gray area?

First and foremost, it addresses the omission of Black woman from American culture. Black women’s narratives are often eclipsed by those of the Black man and/or the White woman. Through ROOTS, I wanted to explore the intersectionality of Black women in America and the unique double discrimination that they experience based on both race and gender.

I drew inspiration from the African diaspora, the Civil Rights Movement, and the namesake famous miniseries Roots (which I revisited after watching the remake that was released last year). The themes of remembering your history and acknowledging where you come from are so poignant. Watching Roots, I realized how much I didn’t know about myself or my background.

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Look: White Dress

Although this dress was the simplest design in the collection, it definitely held the most underlying meaning – that’s why I chose to show it first. I wanted to convey the Black woman’s transition from a style driven by traditional American conformity and assimilation, to one that was more free and representative of her true self. I drew inspiration from the classic fit-and-flare silhouettes of the 1950s. On the back of the dress, I incorporated the photograph of Ruby Bridges that Norman Rockwell used for his painting “The Problem We All Live With.” He juxtaposed Bridges’ innocence with the hate and resistance with which she was met for her role in the fight to desegregate schools in the ‘60s. The numbers on the front of the dress, 030113, which are arranged to look like a prison number, reference the date I was raped. I didn’t tell anyone after it happened because I wasn’t really sure how to react, and I figured that staying quiet was easier than disrupting the community. I definitely blamed myself. Ultimately, this dress represents my sin in staying quiet and “not screaming loud.”

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Look: "Make America... Again" Coat

This coat is a reinterpretation of the KKK cross symbol. In the cross, I laser-cut the words “Make America… Again” as a play on Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Pre- and post- election, people have manipulated this slogan adding their own spin to it (ex. “Make America White Again,” “Make America Gay Again,” etc.). By omitting the word “great” I challenge people to fill in the space with their own interpretation.

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Look: 13th

This design is a response to the mass incarceration of minorities in America. I created it after watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th. I very subtly laser-cut the number 13 on the front of the garment. The sleeves are extended past the hands to obstruct the wearer’s ability to move and operate, so as to represent the struggle of trying to reenter society and the workforce after serving time.

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Look: Martin Castle

This piece is an ode to my mother, who grew up in Martin Castle, Jamaica before immigrating to the U.S. when she was 14. She’s told me stories of how she was bullied in high school and tried desperately to lose her accent and assimilate into society so that kids would stop picking on her. The yellow “X” on the back of the jacket is drawn from the X on the Jamaican flag. The crossing of the straps and appliques in the form of an X throughout the collection is also a nod to Malcolm X replacing his last name with an X to represent the unknown names of our ancestors, lost as a result of slavery. Fittingly, the sleeves of the jacket are made from a found West African textile, composed of strips of cotton cloth sewn together and commonly made by the Yoruba, Nupe, and Hausa people.

Images by Nadia May and video courtesy of The Cornell Fashion Collective

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