Labor and History in Janelle Monae’s Black-and-White Uniform

June 6, 2014 • Fashion, Music

This past October, I had the opportunity to see Janelle Monae live. I had been a fan long before that evening; her artistic ideas, as well as her reputation for turning out spectacular performances, were a major draw. A young black woman moving through an afro-futurist cyborg universe of her own creation—what more could you want?

Her performance was incredible, electrifying the audience in a way I’ve never seen. While the song and dance were important, I noted her costuming: the rigid black and white contrast, the emphasis on suiting, and the uniformity of it all. Each outfit change was individually chic. At one point she was wearing simple black slacks and a white shirt, and by the halfway point she had changed into a striped Saint Laurent-esque motorcycle jacket.

These iconic sartorial choices have solidified Monae as a star as much as her music has;  she has a Covergirl contract among other things. While fashion has often looked to Monae’s dress as chic and inspirational, one of her appearance’s most important dimensions has been overlooked, which has been its relation to labor and work.

Monae once spoke to this idea while accepting at the 2012 BET Awards: “When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.”

In these remarks, you find something different than the usual fashion narrative. Her look isn’t merely an arbitrary decision. What’s interesting here is the notion of “honor.” Her words are inflected with the language of duty, as if her look is the necessary next step in a historical progression. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about carrying on the family business, Monae’s statements should seem familiar. For Monae, history has an imperative that has to be answered, and, here, that imperative is to tell the story of her forbearers’ proletarian past.

Suited for soul: James Brown, The Temptations, and Ray Charles

Suited for soul: James Brown, The Temptations, and Ray Charles

While her intent is so establish herself in relation to her family history, Monae also places herself within a tradition of black pop performance. In the 1960s of rock and soul, black male performers wore suits. One recalls images of Ray Charles bopping in crisp white or James Brown’s Technicolor wardrobe. The political context of 1960s soul gave this uniform a specific charge. Soul uprooted white pop and became to dominant wave, but it was also interpreted as “race” music for its distinctly “black” sound. This gave black performers a particular political relevance in that historical moment. Despite this, black performers have almost always had to work for white audiences to maintain their popularity (see: The Supremes, Billie Holiday, and others). The suit can be read as a thing of labor, if we go beyond their iconic importance.

Monae’s intent, then, seems to be about reclaiming the suit. Her connection to this era reveals itself when you watch her performances. Wearing the costume of the people who came before her, she runs across the stage like James Brown and lands splits like Prince. In doing so, she uses fashion as a vehicle for history. In reminding us of the 60s, however, she also says something about today. If the suit was connected to the political moment of the 1960s, it also is used to draw an analogy to the struggles we face today. Her firebrand rap on “Q.U.E.E.N.” tells of how people in power “keep us underground working hard for the greedy/But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.” As she performed the song live, her words energized her costume. The meaning behind the clothes became a clearer part of her artistry. Not only do we have fashion as armor and fashion as grand mask but, in the cyborgian kunst of Janelle Monae, fashion as testament.

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