A Cosmopolitan online piece pointed out how women of color were best-dressed at the 2017 MET Gala. Rihanna reminded me of Josephine Baker in her part-playful, part-scant gown from COMME des GARÇONS, from the night’s thematic celebrant Rei Kawakubo. It just felt to me like something only Josephine could have chosen to wear without looking unstable.
This got me to thinking about how long Black women have been unsung fashion and beauty changemakers, or either made the change across urban centers and the African diaspora- then others came to take the credit and styles. Many people wonder where our secret lies, because as Maya famously pointed out, Black women are not typically built to suit a fashion model’s size. But, Negress allure has long been the goal and this year’s MET Gala made that clear.
Black women have always had an uncanny ability to style memorably, whether through flamboyant or subtle avenues. The delicious tapestry of complexions throughout the Black and African diaspora bloodlines can backdrop every color to maximum effect. Glowing skin and famously wrinkle-free faces are the apt palette for soft or experimental makeup. Black women can take credit for the braids and “booty” renaissances of today’s fashion and pop culture age. It’s ironic and sad Black women were not cover models until the 70s, and still today are left off magazine front pages, even as our unique forms of dress and style are appropriated globally en masse.
My early beauty aesthetic formed in cornrows my mother fashioned and round balls of Avon lotion (we all have those stashed somewhere), and the cosmetic aisles of a Kmart around the corner from my small-town Illinois subdivision. Women of all heritages will find it fairly effortless, and even cheaper, to adopt Negress allure.
#1. Nude faces work. Black skin is certainly forgiving but our women’s daring boldness to go without face makeup is rooted in historical racism: quite simply, the cosmetics and beauty industries did not manufacture shades befitting to Black women’s hues. We could not find what we needed in the stores. So, our face makeup became confidence.
A great-aunt with beautiful chocolate skin passed me a pretty pink container of Oil of Olay when I was a teenager. It smelled heavenly and did help clear up acne I worsened with harsh products that dried out my skin. Since then I have been obsessed with staying in line with the “Black don’t crack” blessing. I’m proud to say I’m doing a pretty good job.
For negress allure, save the money you would spend on expensive foundations and powders for great moisturizers. Coconut oil is a natural, budget friendly place to start. If you must, just a little powder dusting to reduce shine and even out in photographs will do.
#2. Our lips are something else. I grew up teased about my big lips. This was affectionate. Like ample behinds, huge lips are a Black thing an oppressive culture pokes fun of but our actual culture adores. I have always loved shining and coloring up my lips. Negresses naturally have what women of other heritages pay thousands for: lip-plumping products, collagen boosters, surgery.
Play up your lips with your own favorite tube of lip gloss from the corner beauty supply, high end department store brand (I like MAC’s Lip Glass) or small tube of olive oil. You can add color or not. Stick with raspberries, plums, raisins, muted reds and soft peaches as most Negresses do. Forget matte. With amplified shine, lips look fuller naturally.
#3. Tough lashes and brows. The thick, coily quality of Black hair gives Negress women a boost with rich lashes and brows. The trend towards everyday glamour with false eyelashes started in the Black “hoods” before making it to the suburbs and workplaces.
I discovered that classic neon pink and green tube of Maybelline Great Lash in Jet Black when I was 13, and I have been defending myself against skeptics who guess I have falsies ever since. Indian threading shops will do in a pinch when I’m outside of New York City. But, I have found no one arches my brows better than Puerto Rico women in the average Bronx shop. Wherever you prefer to go, and whether you buy your lashes like weave or not, keep your brows cleaned up and your lashes full.
#4. Embrace fros, braids, headwraps and scarves. Negress hair has the wildest imagination. From a practical standpoint, braids, headwraps and scarves help tame Black women’s strong tresses. These have also been survival tools and political statements. Africans marked tribal associations through various headwrap colors and tie styles. Slaves braided intricate maps of the way to freedom to keep escapes secret. Our hair was once illegal. Yes, it was illegal for freed blacks to show their hair- both as a way to demean and identify them.
Afro-Creole women turned rules to wear their hair bound into the jazzy “tignon” headwrap culture still thriving in America today. The afro was a signature of the Black Power movement, leading into the mohawk and punk spikes of the 80s. Curly fros and buzz cuts are the afro’s reincarnations today.
Take a cue from the Negress beauty playbook and give your hair a rest with an assortment of headwraps and scarves. To extend the moisturizing benefits of a great condition or hot oil treatment, lock your hair into braids and twists for a while.
5. Make statements. Big and bold jewelry is a cornerstone of the Negress beauty arsenal. Piercing originated on the African continent as a way to mark tribal associations. And, while colonists mined for little diamonds to signify status, African people signified class with natural adornments carved meticulously from wood, bone and rock. “Statement jewelry” started due to Blacks worldwide: can’t-miss necklaces and other jewelry made statements about the wearer’s family origins, marriage availability and more.
Forego dainty pieces for highly original costume and African-inspired jewelry others can see from a mile away. I like to have an armful of bangles, large showy rings and dangling earrings in the ordinary everyday.
5. Shop Black. The black hair care industry is a a business sector where Negress entrepreneurs have thrived. They have a personal investment in products that alleviate the stress so many Black women faced in finding adequate and healthy hair care products. They followed in Madam C.J. Walker’s footsteps to reach millions of customers who felt ignored.
I was shopping at Carol’s Daughter when it was just a warm, cozy little shop to go with my friends in Brooklyn. My favorites I use to this day are the light Moisture Milk with a lemongrass scent, and the citrusy Mimosa Hair Honey to give me shine. With its expanded retail and department store distribution today, you no longer have to get to New York for Carol’s Daughter. Other, similar brands to consider are Miss Jessie’s and Thank God I’m Natural (TGIN).
And, we all need robust fashions inspired by or imported from Africa in our life. Fair trade stores nationwide make sure African and Black designers have a place for customers to find them, and African women who make these clothes are paid a living wage.
My favorite is Calabar Imports in Harlem and Brooklyn, operated by arts patron and philanthropist Atim Annette Oton. Follow the boutique’s Pinterest and Instagram pages for constant Negress beauty inspiration to keep you current and on trend.