By Trelani Michelle
A domestic worker, according to Dorothy Lee Bolden Thompson, is more than a maid and a cook. She’s also “a counselor, a doctor, a nurse.” Domestic workers, however, “have never been recognized as part of the labor force.” Born in 1923 in Atlanta, Georgia, Thompson labored as a domestic worker since the age of nine. Then, in the 1940s, when she was in her 20s, she refused to stay late to wash the dishes for her white employer. To punish her refusal, her employer called the police. Thompson was taken in for a psychiatric evaluation then admitted because after all, you have to be crazy to talk back to a white woman. “This was the way you got locked up,” Bolden said in a 1995 interview, “This was the system.”
Like Harriet Tubman, who we all know, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who some of us know, Dorothy Lee Bolden Thompson, who very few of us know, used her rage and disappointment in the system as a catalyst for change. She organized a union for domestic workers, which according to a Georgia State University article by Traci Hammond, “increased Atlanta wages by 33% over two years and won workers' compensation and Social Security rights for all domestic workers.”
Dorothy Lee Bolden Thompson is not celebrated during Black History Month or Women’s History Month, nor is her name acknowledged in school textbooks. She is, however, honored in The Clothes Story, a Sankofa-themed exhibit that features designs replicating the clothing style of black women throughout history, spanning from 1880 to about 1963.
The idea of conveying a story through fashion is not a new concept. And certainly there is plenty of room for storytelling through style on the runways, in entertainment platforms, as well as within the pages of fashion magazines. However, there is a story that hasn’t been told quite like the one that Atlanta-based Theatrical and Cultural Art Designer, Kenneth Green envisioned when he produced The Clothes Story.
You won’t find these stories on the red carpet at the Met Gala or during Fashion Week in Paris or New York City, but once you experience the richness of the history behind the women who adorned the garments on display, you’ll be inspired and enlightened. Although you might catch a glimpse of some styles worn by a few notable and well-known figures in African-American history, Green’s main focus is to highlight ordinary women who weren’t quite as prominent but who accomplished some extraordinary things for black history and culture.
These women were your average everyday mothers, grandmothers, aunties, neighbors and friends. They’re women who demonstrated leadership, courage, advocacy, humanity, and overall strength and fortitude during a time period when their taking up space was not encouraged. Other women highlighted in the exhibit are trailblazers setting precedence in a particular field like Dr. Eliza Ann Grier, the first African-American woman to become a licensed medical practitioner in the state of Georgia.
Consequently, Black history as it has been filtered through the lens of American history, has been very limited in its scope. The names that have often been highlighted in traditional history books and teachings barely scratch the surface of the stories that revel in the richness and depth of its historical roots. Green wanted to do something that would not only shine the light on stories often untold but to do so in a way that would be educational, uplifting and memorable. And what better way to do so than through art, fashion?
Green’s background and expertise in creative arts, particularly musical theatre, no doubt had some influence behind the inspiration for this exhibit. The producer has been around many influential entertainers, artists and creators, coordinating major events like the gala to celebrate the unveiling of the MLK Monument in Washington DC and serving as a casting director for Walt Disney. However, this project was more of a personal undertaking and Green’s own sense of appreciation and homage to the black woman, and her fashion sense is what makes the entire exhibit so authentic.
According to Green, “Throughout history, black women have very often paved the pathway and set the tone through their sense of fashion.” However, it is clear that although the fashion will be the first thing people see, the garments are merely the prelude to the actual stories being told, which are purposely intended to be the most captivating component of the exhibit.
“The very first piece that I replicated was from 1881. I went from 1881 to 1950, then we disbanded in 1963. For me, once you get past the ‘60s, you see how we start to repeat ourselves and it's not as interesting,” Green pointed out. “The fashion,” he said, “seems to be what's drawing people in, but then they read the stories of these women who really were just like my mom, and maybe your mom, grandmother and auntie who just did things to keep their family and to keep their community going, they begin to see the bigger picture. They see that these were major efforts. These were not people who have big names, but they ran the car pools; they were feeding everybody.” They were making the world go ‘round.
The Clothes Story started off with about 8 pieces based on data collected through archives initially pulled from various resources throughout Georgia. Green tapped into some valuable historical data that included images of black women making a fashion statement through the clothing they wore in their particular era. The clothing designs themselves were replicated based on images and recreated using similar patterns and designs. With the collaborative effort of about five designers along with Green’s creative direction, the exhibit has now grown to include approximately 25 pieces with each having its own compelling backstory about the women who wore them.
Although Green’s primary objective for this display has always been to celebrate the unsung heroes, there are certainly a few women who many may recognize, but through The Clothes Story one might hear a piece of their history that isn’t always highlighted. For example, Dr. Coretta Scott King is most widely known as the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many might not be as familiar with Coretta Scott, the soprano and violinist who had a career in performing arts before she became Mrs. King. One of the dresses on display is a replica of the very one once worn by Scott as a celebrated songstress in her earlier life and music career.
The Clothes Story exhibit has most recently been on display in Columbus, GA at the Columbus Public Library for the community’s Juneteenth Jubilee and Unity week celebration. While it’s no longer on exhibit, it will continue to be accessed and appreciated for generations to come via its upcoming catalog which is being sponsored by the Black Art in America Foundation.
In the world of visual art, a catalog allows the legacy of art to remain even if the exhibit is no longer on display. The Metropolitan Museum of Art for example, has an entire collection of exhibition catalogs dating as far back as the 1800s. Catalogs “provide documentation relating to all the items displayed in a show at a museum or art gallery and they contain new scholarly insight by way of thematic essays from curators and academics” (University of Toronto). Black Art in America (BAIA) looks forward to actualizing this documentation for The Clothes Story, everyone involved in its creation, and, per our mission, for the culture.
Trelani Michelle is a New York Times bestselling author and ghostwriter who specializes in autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. Crowned Savannah’s Best Local Author and BAIA's editor in 2021, Trelani graduated from Savannah State University with a Bachelor’s in Political Science then SCAD with an MFA in Writing. After an internship with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, she published a catalog of Black Savannah’s biographies called Krak Teet, centering the lives of 19 Gullah Geechee elders over the age of 80. Referring to her work as "Zora Neale Hurstoning," Trelani has presented her work at The Highlander Research and Education Center, Georgia Council for the Arts, SCAD, UNC’s Black Communities Conference, and more. Learn more about her writing services at SoFundamental.com and her Black history lessons at KrakTeet.com. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @KrakTeet.
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