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Tough Chic

The Black Panthers set out to make a political statement, but they also made one in fashion.

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NEW YORK — Members of the Black Panther Party set out to make a political statement, not a fashion one. Still, the edgy style the black nationalist group adopted during the late Sixties was as provocative and revolutionary as their ideas, with the men flaunting a paramilitary look, dressed in leather jackets, sunglasses and berets and the women full-blown Afros, batiks or stark black dresses and knee-high boots.

Press corp photographers churned out incendiary images of the Panthers, documenting the movement’s violence. But a new book of photographs by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, “Black Panthers 1968” (Greybull), tells a different story. Baruch and Jones captured the organization’s gentler side in Oakland, Calif., during the fall of 1968, when the pair was granted unparalleled access to the group. In these quiet moments, it’s easy to see just how young, passionate and fiercely fashionable the party members were.

Kathleen Cleaver, who married Black Panther founding member Eldridge Cleaver in 1967, risked her life as the organization’s communications secretary. But she also served as an in-house fashion icon who embodied the group’s Black Is Beautiful ideal, though today she recognizes her trendsetting role somewhat reluctantly. “At the time we weren’t running around thinking ‘we look cool,’” says Cleaver, who penned the book’s forward and now lives in Connecticut, produces the Black Panther Film Festival and teaches law at Emory. “That wasn’t on top of our minds.”

Among the Panthers, however, Cleaver’s sleek look quickly picked up steam. “Eldridge said that I had set another style, and that the way I dressed was how young women wanted to look,” she admits. “They wanted to have Afros and wear black skirts and boots.”

Cleaver’s was also a style that developed out of necessity. “I had one dress, one jacket and one skirt. I’d wear them all the time, but they were all black, so I could get away with that,” she says. “It did create a distinctive look because it was so simple.”

Even dressed simply, the Panthers stood out in a crowd, creating dynamic subjects for the troupe of photographers who followed their every move, including those sent by the newspapers and the FBI. Whether the photographers were friend or foe, however, few of their subjects could resist the desire to look good on film. “People did spend a lot of time fixing their hair,” says Cleaver, laughing. “There were aspirations to have Afros that had a certain shape.”
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