The Academic Feminist: Feminist Fashion and Scholar-Activism: A Conversation with Tanisha C. Ford

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! This edition of the
Academic Feminist features Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor in the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Tanisha’s work on fashion and social movements is at the intersection of race, sexuality, gender, and body politics, producing what she describes as “Haute Couture Intellectualism.”  Tanisha joins the Academic Feminist to discuss how these themes shape her book project, what she learned teaching a course on Feminisms & Fashion, and the centrality of scholar-activism in her on– and off–line work.

1) You are at work on a manuscript for a book titled Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment. Without giving too much away, tell us a little about the book, and how you came to be interested in the topic.

I’ve always had a love of fashion. I attribute this love to my feminist mother, who designed and sewed her own clothes in the 1970s. When I was a kid, she use to adorn me in African-printed garments and “Black is Beautiful” t-shirts. As a graduate student, I began researching the Civil Rights and Black Power era. I realized that the way that black women activists like my mother dressed mattered because their bodies were contested spaces.  My interest in these stylish women sent me on a quest to understand how and why they adorned themselves in this way. Were they alone? If not, who were the other women who dressed similarly? What influenced their sartorial choices? Liberated Threads is an outgrowth of my intellectual curiosities about black women’s dressed bodies. The book examines how black women in the United States, Britain, and South Africa transformed the everyday act of getting dressed into a political strategy. From leading protests against white-owned wig shops to sporting denim overalls instead of dresses and cardigans, embodied activism assumed many forms as Africana women fought to define their dressed bodied on their own terms in the 1960s and 70s. I’ve enjoyed traveling to three different continents to interview several interesting women and men of color—from fashion designers and models to former Black Panthers and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

2) You recently taught a course called “Feminisms and Fashion.” What did that look like?  What were some things that came out of the course that you didn’t expect?

It’s always great to have a chance to teach your “dream course.” Feminisms and Fashion is my dream course, and I had so much fun teaching it! The course revolved around three main questions: Can feminists be fashionistas? Can fashion and hairstyle choices function as forms of cultural and political resistance? How do social constructions such as race, class, and gender inform our interpretations of the dressed body? We looked at dress in various parts of the African Diaspora, including London, Tanzania, Jamaica, and New York City. It was a small seminar class, which allowed me to use different pedagogical strategies than I would in a large lecture course. For example, in lieu of a final exam or essay, the students produced feminist multimedia projects. One third of the projects examined fashion and body politics among queer-identifying students. My students developed original video and blog content to analyse the various ways their peers define and embody the term “queer” through their clothing choices. I recently wrote an article for The Feminist Wire that highlights these multimedia projects. I’m working towards amplifying the digital media component of the course as part of my department’s Digital Feminisms initiative. 

3) As academics go, you have a fairly large web presence – you are on twitter (@SoulistaPhD) and you also write for the website The Feminist Wire.  Is being active online something that is important to your academic life?

Yes, it is!  Social and digital media platforms allow me to engage in current intellectual debates and social justice campaigns on issues that matter to me. I can use the online space to produce thought provoking content, which allows me to effect change beyond my local community. Also, because the academic publishing process can be slow and tedious, blogging (or microblogging) enables me to share my thoughts and receive feedback instantaneously. Since I usually blog on topics related to my research, my online activism and writing fuels my writing for traditional academic publishing outlets. I also use social media to connect with colleagues, many of whom I’ve never met in person. For me, Facebook and Twitter are virtual conference spaces. Through these platforms, my peers and I exchange ideas, help each other develop course syllabi, and notify each other of fellowships and other professional opportunities. While I don’t think social media connections should replace face-to-face interaction, I like not having to wait for an annual conference to connect with my peers living in other parts of the world.

4) Last quick – and maybe impossible! – question.  Which one book or author – scholarly or non – has most influenced you?

Different books and authors have influenced me over the years. Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement is one text I’ve returned to over the course of my academic career. I initially read the book as a master’s student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was blown away by Ransby’s declaration that she was a “feminist biographer” and “scholar-activist.” Her book was the first historical text I’d read that was so explicit about its activist agenda. Ransby uses Ella Baker’s life and political strategies as a blue print for young activists to emulate, and the book has definitely made an indelible mark outside of the academy. I recently watched an episode of writer/actor/director Issa Rae’s hilariously insightful RatchetPiece Theatre. I could see a copy of Ella Baker on Rae’s bookshelf! I thought, “You too, Issa?!” So, it’s clear to me that Barbara Ransby’s work is inspiring a generation of feminist scholar-activists and cultural producers. Now that I’m writing my own book, I revisit Ransby’s text to help me remember the importance of the authorial voice and the ways I can use my academic writing to help mobilize young folks.

Extra Credit!
In addition to the above linked materials, below you can find more information on the topics discussed here. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.

Haute Couture in the Ivory Tower

You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics

Black Dandies Fashion New Academic Identities

If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion

Queer Women of Color Speak on Fashion and Body Image

(The “Resources” page on Tanisha’s website has several other book and article titles.)

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

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