Black Panther Steeze
I’ve spoken on this blog about how big of an influence military attire has had on contemporary fashion, numerous times in the past. Fashion and popular style are both games of re-apportionment, and there’s perhaps no fashion well that gets dipped into more often for the sake of re-purposing than the military world. But what about paramilitary organizations and all the sartorial inspiration that can be found in that realm? The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were an African-American revolutionary leftist organization that advanced their political ideology and social agendas equipped with guns, berets, and nifty leather jackets. They were an organization with a clean military-inspired aesthetic; an aesthetic that I’ve never seen discussed at length in any sort of sartorial sense.
I’m a big fan of the Black Panthers, perhaps it was my acute attention to the organization as a whole that first made me admire their collective appearance. Politics aside though, one doesn’t have to be a militant afrocentric individual to pick up a few style cues from the Panthers.
to help me with the shoot, i enlisted lovely photographer friend diana liu, who sometimes shoots some cool stuff over at campus street style blog the sardorealist
The (Military-esque) Beret
The beret was a staple of the Black Panther uniform, an integral ingredient to their imposing, militant persona. I did some research on the beret and was surprised to find that the world-famous headpiece didn’t start in the military. The beret (and past variations) actually date back to several thousand years B.C. The beret in police or military use is relatively new within the scope of the garment’s entire history, starting around the 16th or 17th century. Still, the last 500 years plus has been more than enough time to give the beret an entrenched military tradition.
Interestingly enough, if you look at the beret, you find that it’s a garment that has become a salient part of countless cultures, lifestyles, and sub-sects. The piece is easily identifiable with military and police use, intellectuals, artists, beatniks, film directors, and even Rastafarians. Thousands of years of existence has bore enough deviation for the garment to develop differently for different sects. It may surprise you to know that the headdress worn by Rastas is just as much a beret as those worn by the U.S. Army. What intrigued me most was the fact that the type of berets sported by Black Panther personnel was much more akin to the civilian type than it was to that of any military.
unidentified panther with co-founder huey p. newton; sporting a colt .45 and a shotgun, respectively
Here’s the most intriguing part of this discovery though: despite the fact that the Black Panthers wore civilian berets, they still donned them in the manner of military personnel. If you Google any photos of American soldiers wearing berets, you’ll always see the lip (the loose side) of the beret falling to the right. I learned that this is done by most military (excluding some in Europe) to free the shoulder that bears the rifle on most soldiers. Check out the which direction the berets fall in the previous photo and which arm the firearms are on. Pretty cool if you ask me. A friend and I recently had a discussion concerning the “proper” way to wear a beret. It’d be interesting to learn why different cultures associated with berets wore them the way they did.
beret - thrift; jacket - thrift; shirt, tie - old navy; chinos, boots - urban outfitters
The Utility Jacket
The Panthers wore several different kinds of leather jackets. Mine is made of cotton and was thrifted. Mine is also a utility jacket, as were the jackets sported by many members of the organization. The utility garment is a silhouette that has been making the rounds through official military attire and workwear for decades now, usually characterized by two vertically aligned pockets on each side of the garment (at least as far as jackets are concerned). Utility pieces were made for just that, utility. So it would make sense that they have their origins in workwear and military attire, where pragmatic, efficient clothing is most desirable.
I’ve tried hard to figure out the former life of my utility jacket. It’s fairly easy to rule out as military attire, the fit and weight wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps it was some sort of workwear piece, it does have the characteristic blue of classic American workwear. Probably the biggest reason I love it is because of the cut; it can effectively be worn as a blazer because of its construction, material, and light weight.
It’s cool that the Black Panthers seemed to find a middle ground between the classic military silhouette and workwear silhouette normally reserved for utility garments. Or maybe the Panthers were just doing their own thing. After all, their jackets were made of leather, material found in utilities no where else.
One more thing. Keep in mind that the Black Panthers were on the all-black tip long before Rick Owens, Alexander Wang, Jay-Z, SpaceGhostPurrp, or anyone else. That’s also kind of cool.