Shelby Ivey Christie on Fashion's History and Future

Shelby Ivey Christie on Fashion's History and Future

by Evan Ross Katz

Whether you're a card carrying member of High Fashion Twitter™ or just a casual person_eating_popcorn.gif poster on the app, you've undoubtedly encountered fashion and costume historian Shelby Ivey Christie. You've probably "liked," certainly RT'd, and most definitely learned something new. Because Christie finds ways to make academia not only digestible but unquenchable, taking surface fascinations and uncovering their origins or threads previously unpulled.

Christie's curiosity and hunger for knowledge have led her down several often-converging paths. She's currently pursuing her M.A. Costume Studies degree at New York University, having previously studied fashion merchandising as an undergrad then secretly switched over to history, dropped out to work at W magazine and returned to earn a degree in Race, Class & Culture. But that path of study didn't deter her fashion pursuits — rather, it informed them. "I didn't want to ignore that whole piece of who I am to pursue a more 'secure' history career path," she says.

A few editorial stints later, including in the halls of Vogue and InStyle, Christie has established herself as one of the preeminent voices of fashion on the internet: reliable, considered, studied, thoughtful, critical, passionate. What will she do with her M.A.? "Even though fashion is new to heritage, to the art world, there are people who do it and do it as a full time job. I'm still on that journey to figuring out what it looks like. I'm still unpacking it."

Below Christie chronicles her journey, the need to advocate for Black designer legacies, the importance of making fashion history digestible and the Black fashion creatives inspiring her.

I want to start by going back to your early memories. Can you recall some early images you saw of fashion — whether it be in film or in magazines — that really stayed with you and made you fall in love?

A lot of my early fashion imagery came from two places. One: BET. I would come home from school and wait for 106 and Park to come on. Music videos at that time really were the window into Black fashion for me as a kid. Seeing the video vixens, that was who you aspired to to look like. They were beautiful, their hair and makeup was great and they always had on bomb outfits. In the '90s it was like Foxy Brown videos and Lil' Kim videos. And they were so glamorous. And then as I became an adolescent and into my teenage years it was costumes. Anyone who knows me through Twitter knows that I love costumes on film and TV. Me and my dad are huge movie buffs. And so costumes on screen fashion is how I came to solidify my love of fashion and kind of how I got into the history of fashion because I love period pieces.

Is there a particular film or television show where the costumes pulled your focus in the best way possible?

Marie Antoinette, the 2006 Sofia Coppola version, I always say that was it for me. It clicked in my mind, like, "Okay, I think this is something that I really love," and I began to research all of these juxtapositions within the film. Like, okay, it takes place in the 1700s, but I see a pair of Chuck Taylors… and I want to understand what that is. But also Black publications like Jet and Ebony and Essence. In many Black households, you grow up and your mom would have like a pile of Essence and Ebony somewhere because they subscribe to them, and so you'd get to look at them once she was done. And that was always fun because you would see these fashion spreads, but in the spreads everyone looks like you, you know, beautiful Black women and you're seeing stuff from a Black perspective — like what are Black people wearing? I was definitely the kid who would see things in fashion magazines and try to emulate them. Like one time I tried to wear white socks with a heel that I'd seen in some magazine, which is very editorial. I was definitely the kid where my mom had to be like, "Don't get any ideas, 'cause I see you looking at that."

Was there a moment where that dissonance between the images that you were seeing in publications like Jet, Essence and Ebony and something like a Vogue or an Elle first became apparent to you?

I think Cosmo would probably be the first title where I realized "Oh, there's an extreme difference in like what I see in Cosmo and the kind of content I was used to seeing in Essence, Jet or Ebony." Or just the difference in topics, right? I think it was more so content than it was imagery for me. There was a thread on Twitter a while ago about Black celebrities who are only famous to Black people that white people wouldn't know. It's kind of like that, when you open your magazines and you see Ciara and Lil' Bow Wow and like people who are really famous in your community at the time and then you open a magazine like Cosmo and it's, you know, the stars of High School Musical.

I want to talk specifically about your expertise within fashion history. I'm always fascinated by why certain designers' memories are able to hold up in the fashion public's consciousness more. I think about McQueen, for instance, who is someone whose name you know, whether you're in or out of fashion. But Patrick Kelly, who was really influential on getting me interested in fashion is often overlooked. Are there designers that you think don't get their flowers today in terms of really being influential and not being enough regarded as such?

Oh for sure. And to your point, I think that goes back to needing diversity in these kinds of roles, like curatorial roles, fashion historian roles, because if there is no one who has a real vested interest in it... not saying that there aren't white people who might have a vested interest in wanting to give these Black designers a platform, but of course if someone is Black and they have a interest in Black fashion history, they're going to make sure that thread comes through. But when there's no one there to document these smaller designers or designers of color and making sure they're being included in these conversations and exhibitions and these articles, that's how they get lost, that's how they get buried, 'cause there's not the same kind of enthusiasm to advocate for them or someone to advocate for their legacy. And yeah, I think there are very many designers who get lost: Felicia Farrar, Ola Hudson who designed a lot of David Bowie's stage costumes and is Slash's mother, someone who we really should hear more about and we don't — even in the costume design realm. There are so many costume designers, like Ceci who worked on A Different World. She designed many of those iconic nineties looks and we don't really get to hear a lot from her. Even throughout the diaspora, like Joe Casely-Hayford, rest his soul. There are so many threads that need to be pulled through and pulled forward. It's just making sure that we take as much care with Black contributions as we do with the YSLs and the Halstons.

Who is your favorite designer — not in terms of their work, but in terms of their story?

That's a hard one. I would say probably Mildred Blount. She was a Black milliner. She worked on the hats for Gone With the Wind. She answered a newspaper ad at the time from a very famous white milliner, John Frederics, who was looking for an assistant. Of course the ad didn't say people of color can't apply. But you know, that was the assumption that someone white was gonna fill that role, and I think took a lot of bravery for her to apply to the role and show up and want to interview for it because I'm sure she knew the implications of that. And she ended up getting the position and was able to work on costume pieces for a lot of film. And she was the first Black person to be admitted into the Motion Picture Costumers Union. And that's really inspiring to me that sometimes just because you're the only one doesn't mean the work can't still be done. Because it can be intimidating, it can be scary. And she was able to move forward even in the face of that.

I want to talk about social media next, because I think one of the fascinating things about places specifically like Twitter is that a lot of the work that you do can be placed on a platform like Twitter and really be celebrated, appreciated and disseminated in ways that before you had a platform like Twitter, it might not have been. How specifically has social media played a role in your work?

It's pivotal to my work because it's the main place where it lives. I purposely went to social media as a tool because that's where the audience is, right? Like that's where the young, Black creatives are. And I think that's where the hunger is for this kind of information. And like you said, it makes it very accessible, which is a huge goal of mine. I'm a historian who has one leg in the scholarly world, in academia, and that can be very inaccessible. Most of the general public are not reading academic journals. Social media also makes this kind of information easy to digest, and it's easy storytelling. I can attach the video, I can attach the images or the source material and it's right there. It's been pivotal in getting this information out and getting our story told. It's also important for the timestamp. It's timestamped and dated, so we can always go back to it and say, "We disseminated this information on this date, at this time," and as a historian that's always important to me.

How would you say that you bring your own identity into your work?

I definitely try to maintain my regular voice. I'm not speaking in this very high-level academic word soup. I try to just talk in my normal voice. I keep my "y'alls" because I'm southern. I try to keep my sense of humor in it and keep it conversational and talk how I would if I was explaining this in person. And I think I keep my excitement and my joy in it, because a lot of times if I'm thinking about somebody new, I might be researching it at the same time that I'm tweeting it. I'm also discovering things sometimes as I'm sharing them. So I hope that my excitement comes through because I'll be like, "Wow, I just found this out and hey guys, I'm going to take a break to go dig this up because someone told me that this might be a thing." And I try to be transparent about that too, about it being a journey that I don't always just know all of these things. I'm also researching and uncovering stuff too.

What's your reaction to seeing so many fashion brands with long histories of overt racist behavior or discriminatory practices all of the sudden voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their sudden condemnation of racism?

It definitely comes off inauthentic. Like you said, there's often very recent histories of racism within their own messaging, their own collections, their own imagery. Or sometimes it's excluding Black people from shows and creative, or even within their rates. Within their corporate functions there may not be a lot of Black employees there and the ones that are there might not be actual stakeholders or occupy seats where they actually had decision making power. So I think the general public is rightfully side-eyeing this.

I think that the industry has to realize that we can't keep up that veneer. It now has to go a little bit further down than the surface. It can't be, "Oh we'll post a few influencers of color on the feed and that will appease them." No! Consumers in the audience have moved past that. They want real equitable stakes in the business, in the brand. They want to be really valued, and not in a superficial way of, "Let me check the Black box." We really want to be valued and hired for our expertise. We don't want to just be brought in to meet a quota. And that speaks to the inclusion part of the quota. It's not just the diversity, but the inclusion that also needs to be moved forward, in asking are Black folks coming into an environment where they're going to be welcomed, where they're going to want to be heard, where the team really values their feedback, where they're going to be rewarded for their work? So I think, rightfully so, people are saying it looks very superficial.

"I think it's the very systemic things within the fashion industry that need to change: the hiring process, that topic alone is a whole thing that contributes, the white nepotism of it all and how that contributes to how when Black people come into the work environment and how they're treated by their coworkers who aren't there because of merit."

Do you feel as if any substantive progress has been or is being made?

I don't know if it's the kind of progress that we need to really move the needle forward. You know, we've seen amazing things like Elaine [Welteroth] and Edward [Enninful] be appointed to their roles and killing it with the content, you know, diversifying the content in a real meaningful way, having the really important conversations, making content that resonates with people who aren't just white; with people of color, with Black people, championing our stars, championing our celebs, showing our designers off and giving them placement in these books and in this industry.

We've seen Black designers join the CFDA and win the CFDA Vogue Fashion award, like Kerby [Jean-Raymond] and like Christopher John Rogers. And we've seen Hanifa rise up and meet the demands in innovative ways during this time of COVID. I think it's changed in those very positive ways, but I think I've learned — not to say those are small feet by any stretch of the imagination, those are huge accomplishments — but those are things that are very public-facing. Those are very public-facing strides and we love to see the awards given and we love to see the collections. But I think it's the very systemic things within the fashion industry that need to change: the hiring process, that topic alone is a whole thing that contributes, the white nepotism of it all and how that contributes to how when Black people come into the work environment and how they're treated by their coworkers who aren't there because of merit. Those kinds of things that are very insidious in the industry have to change. How are Black designers valued by buyers? And what are their interest rates when they are being bought and how are they being paid for their collections and what are they being paid for their collections when fashion retailers make orders with them? All of those little things that we still haven't gotten to. We're still functioning at the high level of things and we have to drill down to the nuanced things. Everything needs an overhaul. No matter how small we think it is, it needs to be looked at with fresh eyes.

What has it been like seeing so many Black folks from all arenas of the fashion industry coming forward and sharing their experiences in this industry, one that often likes to tout its own diversity?

You feel like, "Okay, I'm not crazy. I might've experienced some of these things that they're touching on and wasn't just me." It's not that you want another person to have gone through that, but you feel seen. It feels sad too. 'Cause when you see people share their experiences and you hear their traumatic stories, we understand that they have to relive that in order to tell it. Those people are also brave too, because fashion is the kind of landscape where Black people may not always be able to be as vocal as their counterparts about what they go through. You have to work with these people and you have to be able to do your work in the industry and you don't want to be stigmatized for speaking out. So when I see people on larger stages, being able to speak up, it feels good because they're using their voice and they might understand that other people in the industry still have to work in this industry and might not be able to speak out so that big voice is using their influence to try to promote change. So it's a good thing to see, but it is sad to see that even at their level, they experienced the same things that we experienced in the fashion closet or as an intern or as an assistant.

I want to wrap up by asking about your inspirations. It can be people, it can be places. What have you, what's currently inspiring you?

I'm passionate about making sure people know that we've always been here. It didn't start with Pat Cleveland and Bethann [Hardison]. Our influencers have always been there and really pulling that thread forward and showing people, "Look, we're contributors to society and culture and politics and we've always been here."

And that's what excites me, being able to make those connections to Blackness and really show people with hard evidence and primary sources that this is what, you know, we're here, we're here. It's a fact. And it's Black and it's white and there's no denying that. Black fashion journalists and Black fashion critics like Antoine Gregory who are very vocal about the Black fashion experience. Amanda Murray and @pam_boy talk about contemporary fashion through the lens of Blackness. I really value their perspectives as they are from Europe and give me a different perspective on the industry from that POV and share their experiences as Black fashion talent in the UK/Paris and their times spent here in the US. @NygelSartorial, @plugYuri and @archivealive do the very important and detailed work of archiving, documenting and sharing original scans and primary sources of Blackness in fashion. @NicoKartel photographs amazing fashion moments. Black costume designers like Shiona Turini, Ceci and Stacy Beverly also inspire me. And Black designers and stylists, current Black designers, being able to witness the history firsthand as it's made is really inspirational because it's one thing to go back in the archives and dig up designers and what went on before we got here, but being able to also witness in person, day in and day out, is really inspiring to me and not something that I take for granted.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photos courtesy of Shelby Ivey Christie