Photo of unnamed Americans in 1923 (Library of Congress)When you comb through old newspaper articles looking for predictions for the future like I do you can start to become numb to the racism of the 19th and 20th centuries. But I just stumbled upon an article from 1927 that was pretty damn racist, even for the time.
The article, published in the 19 January 1927 edition of the Berkeley Daily Gazette in California, was titled “Savage Styles Predicted for 30 Years Hence.” Thirty years in the future was, of course, the 1950s. But what did they mean by savage? Well, they meant anything worn by brown and black people of the world.
The article, written by the United Press Fashion editor Hedda Hoyt and syndicated across the country, starts with pretty stock fears about women wearing trousers in the world of tomorrow. We’ve seen that one plenty, of course, when looking at the rise of feminism in the early 20th century.
Will women wear trousers 30 years hence? We’d like to wager that it will be breech-cloth rather than breeches which will widen the breach between styles today and styles 30 years hence.
But then the article launches into its racist diatribes about how American women found short haircuts, allegedly inspired by people of Fiji, and hats inspired by African hairstyles.
The trend toward savage styles in dress and hair-dressing have been advancing for years. First came the short Fiji Island haircut. Our mop-like locks, bobbed and permanently waved, were exact duplicates of the cannibals. When shorter and straighter boyish haircuts came in vogue we continued to carry out the savage head-dress idea by wearing hats which were copied from African hair-does. These head-fitting turbans which slope backwards with hands of contrasting color of trimming, giving the outline of the African head-dress, have met with great success this winter.
At this point the article then launches into even more racist descriptions of “slave bracelets” and other “savage styles.”
Without any doubt the hula-hula dancing skirt of straw gave us the idea for short fringed dancing frocks. Where native maidens wore legs “a la nude” we wear sunburned-toned stockings. Slave bracelets and anklets are old stuff to head-hunters but new to our flappers. Earrings, likewise, are an original savage style. They are nifty but not considered as smart as the nose ring in some circles.
The article somehow gets even more racist from there.
The female maneater in a grass skirt with bare legs and arms adorned with numerous anklets and bracelets, sways her lithe body to the tune of a tom tom as she goes through the motions of the Black Bottom dance. She’s not so different in appearance from our little man-hunters with short skirts, tan make-ups, bobbed hair and jingling jewelry who dance the Black Bottom to the jazzy drumbeats of an orchestra. They are equally dressed. Their sense of rhythm is the same.
Like I said, I’m pretty used to racist depictions and descriptions from the early 20th century. But this article was extremely racist. And it was all part of a fear by many white people that things like jazz and racial integration were corrupting the purity of white society.
Sadly, spending some time on far-right Twitter has shown me that these ideas are still with us, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.