There’s a summer uniform that I associate with all the black people I know over 40 years old. For the men, it’s two-piece suits, loose pants, and guayabera shirts with chunky black sandals. Where I grew up, in Detroit, they might also add alligator loafers, topping the look off with a gold chain or two and a straw hat. For the women, it’s tunics with loose pants or caftan-like dresses and sensible but stylish heels. The common denominator here is linen. The lightweight, breathable fabric is a practical and obvious choice for warmer months, yet there’s a distinction in the way that black people wear it; it’s not just a means to keep the breeze flowing in the summer heat, it’s a look. Always starch-pressed. Always accompanied by a two-step, probably to some Frankie Beverly and Maze or Charlie Wilson. The fabric is usually white or beige, and sometimes pastel, lime green, orange, or tan. The color white looks radiant on dark skin, which means that a black person in white linen immediately stands out and has a look of regality. The look embodies an entire generation and their love for going out (usually to Essence Fest, a summer concert, cookouts, or an all-white party) and, as my grandmother would say, their penchant for looking “sharp.”
“I don't think there’s a name for it. I guess beyond how my dad dresses, I associate it with Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner, or even someone like Drake’s father, Dennis Graham,” says Jonathan Michael Square, a historian specializing in fashion and visuals from the African Diaspora and a Harvard University professor. “It's just an auntie, uncle, probably going to Essence Music Festival. It's one of the many versions of African American dapperness.”
My grandmother on my dad’s side, and her best friend, known to me as Auntie Denise, both agree, and they even told me that my dad adopted the same linen uniform after seeing his uncles wearing it while he was growing up. Over the phone, they reminisce about going to Hudson’s (now Macy’s) and picking out their all-linen outfits ahead of whatever artist was coming to Detroit to perform that weekend.
“You know who was our favorite? Frankie Beverly and Maze, the O’Jays, and the Whispers,” says my grandmother. “When they was in town, oh, shoot, the whole city was gonna get sharp. You’d go shopping someplace, and they’d ran out of whatever you wanted to buy.”
“Detroit would get ready for them,” Auntie Denise (aka Denise Pratt) chimes in. “And you hear people all over the world — if they know anything about Detroit, they would tell you that Detroit is known for its cars and dressing.”
“And what were some of your favorite linen outfits?” I ask them.
“I can’t remember. But, Tahirah, with your aunt, whatever outfit we had on, we had a ball. We just had a ball,” my grandmother says.
“And we were cute. You know how you see a lot of people with the linen on, T-shirts and stuff, we don’t do that. We’re not so casual,” Auntie Denise says.
Like many things in life — braiding hair or wearing church hats and Sunday’s Best — black people have a knack for giving practical, everyday things more style, a twist of their own, a sense of community. The way we wear linen is no different.
While the fabric is prone to wrinkling, black people prefer their linen starch-pressed with pleats down the front of the trousers. And while the fabric is also a signifier of leisurely downtime, black people wear linen as an option for dressing up for special occasions. “The black community has such a long history of being totally immersed in style and having a great respect for style within the culture,” says Constance White, fashion editor and author of How to Slay. “Style is always important in the black community. And there are all these ritualistic ways that style is used, from how you dress in church to how you dress when you’re traveling to how you dress if you’re going to a barbecue.”