The Will to Adorn


Dress, Identity, Community

The arts of dress and adornment are more than simply reflections of personal taste and sense of style. They constitute the visual vocabularies of community and individual self-naming, revealing people’s ethnic and cultural identifications, commitments to a faith or cause, social relationships, as well as shared standards of beauty and appropriateness. The sheer variety of African American dress, adornment, and body art traditions speaks volumes about the diversity of the communities of African descendents in the United States.

Will to Adorn celebrates individual expression and creativity, but it focuses on the details of social dressing and the conventions that define what it means to be well dressed or appropriately attired in different communities.

Will to Adorn is documenting the experiences of “artisans of style,” people such as milliners, hairdressers, and tailors, who use their creativity and specialized skills to meet the distinct tastes and cultural aesthetics of their clients. It is also identifying and interviewing “exemplars of style,” who capture the essence of their community’s shared ideals regarding hair, apparel, accessories, and body art. And finally, it is recording the language and discourses related to dress and adornment in African American communities.

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Mrs. Wharton’s Classroom – Margaret Murray Washington Vocational School, 1950
Photo by Scurlock Studio, Smithsonian Institution

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DanceAfrica Bazaar, 2009
Photo by Jade Banks