As the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, “social distancing” has become a buzzword of these strange times.
Instead of stockpiling food or rushing to the hospital, authorities are saying social distancing – deliberately increasing the physical space between people – is the best way ordinary people can help “flatten the curve” and stem the spread of the virus.
Fashion might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of isolation strategies. But as a historian who writes about the political and cultural meanings of clothing, I know that fashion can play an important role in the project of social distancing, whether the space created helps solve a health crisis or keep away pesky suitors.
Clothing has long served as a useful way to mitigate close contact and unnecessary exposure. In this current crisis, face masks have become a fashion accessory that signals, “stay away.”
Fashion also proved to be handy during past epidemics such as the bubonic plague, when doctors wore pointed, bird-like masks as a way to keep their distance from sick patients. Some lepers were forced to wear a heart on their clothes and don bells or clappers to warn others of their presence.
However, more often than not, it doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic for people to want to keep others at arm’s length.
In the past, maintaining distance – especially between genders, classes and races – was an important aspect of social gatherings and public life. Social distancing didn’t have anything to do with isolation or health; it was about etiquette and class. And fashion was the perfect tool.
Take the Victorian-era “crinoline.” This large, voluminous skirt, which became fashionable in the mid-19th century, was used to create a barrier between the genders in social settings.
While the origins of this trend can be traced to the 15th-century Spanish court, these voluminous skirts became a marker of class in the 18th century. Only those privileged enough to avoid household chores could wear them; you needed a house with enough space to be able to comfortably move from room to room, along with a servant to help you put it on. The bigger your skirt, the higher your status.
In the 1850s and 1860s, more middle-class women started wearing the crinoline as caged hoop skirts started being mass-produced. Soon, “Crinolinemania” swept the fashion world.
Despite critiques by dress reformers who saw it as another tool to oppress women’s mobility and freedom, the large hoop skirt was a sophisticated way of maintaining women’s social safety. The crinoline mandated that a potential suitor – or, worse yet, a stranger – would keep a safe distance from a woman’s body and cleavage.
Although these skirts probably inadvertently helped mitigate the dangers of the era’s smallpox and cholera outbreaks, crinolines could be a health hazard: Many women burned to death after their skirts caught fire. By the 1870s, the crinoline gave way to the bustle, which only emphasized the fullness of the skirt on the posterior.
Women nonetheless continued to use fashion as a weapon against unwanted male attention. As skirts got narrower in the 1890s and early 1900s, large hats – and, more importantly, hat pins, which were sharp metal needles used to fasten the hats – offered women the protection from harassers that crinolines once gave.
As for keeping healthy, germ theory and a better understanding of hygiene led to the popularization of face masks – very similar to the ones we use today – during the Spanish flu. And while the need for women to keep their distance from pesky suitors remained, hats were used more to keep masks intact than to push strangers away.
Today, it isn’t clear whether the coronavirus will lead to new styles and accessories. Perhaps we’ll see the rise of novel forms of protective outerwear, like the “wearable shield” that one Chinese company developed.
But for now, it seems most likely that we’ll all just continue wearing pajamas.
Long before there was Jamal and Latasha, there was Booker and Perlie. The names have changed, but mycolleagues and I traced the use of distinctive black names to the earliest history of the United States.
As scholars of history, demographics and economics, we found that there is nothing new about black names.
Until a few years ago, the story of black names depended almost exclusively on data from the 1960s onward. New data, such as the digitization of census and newly available birth and death records from historical periods, allows us to analyze the history of black names in more detail.
We used federal census records and death certificates from the late 1800s in Illinois, Alabama and North Carolina to see if there were names that were held almost exclusively by blacks and not whites in the past. We found that there were indeed.
We were interested to learn that the black names of the late 1800s and early 1900s are not the same black names that we recognize today.
The historical names that stand out are largely biblical such as Elijah, Isaac, Isaiah, Moses and Abraham, and names that seem to designate empowerment such as Prince, King and Freeman.
These names are quite different from black names today such as Tyrone, Darnell and Kareem, which grew in popularity during the civil rights movement.
Once we knew black names were used long before the civil rights era, we wondered how black names emerged and what they represented. To find out, we turned to the antebellum era – the time before the Civil War – to see if the historical black names existed before the emancipation of slaves.
Since the census didn’t record the names of enslaved Africans, this led to a search of records of names from slave markets and ship manifests.
Using these new data sources, we found that names like Alonzo, Israel, Presley and Titus were popular both before and after emancipation among blacks. We also learned found that roughly 3% of black Americans had black names in the antebellum period – about the same percentage as did in the period after the Civil War.
But what was most striking is the trend over time during enslavement. We found that the share of black Americans with black names increased over the antebellum era while the share of white Americans with these same names declined, from more than 3% at the time of the American Revolution to less than 1% by 1860.
By the eve of the Civil War, the racial naming pattern we found for the late 1800s was an entrenched feature in the U.S.
Why is this important?
Black names tell us something about the development of black culture, and the steps whites were taking to distance themselves from it.
Scholars of African American cultural history, such as Lawrence W. Levine, Herbert Gutman and Ralph Ellison, have long held that the development of African American culture involves both family and social ties among people from various ethnic groups in the African diaspora.
In other words, people from various parts of Africa came together to form black culture as we recognize it today. One way of passing that culture on is through given names, since surnames were stolen during enslavement.
How this culture developed and persisted in a chattel slavery system is a unique historical development. As enslavement continued through the 1800s, African American culture included naming practices that were national in scope by the time of emancipation, and intimately related to the slave trade.
Since none of these black names are of African origin, they are a distinct African American cultural practice which began during enslavement in the U.S.
After more than 100 years of history, it’s clear the word “jazz” means many different things to many different people. Depending on who’s doing the talking, it can either mean a highly specific musical style, or almost nothing.
The early timeline of jazz is spotty, vague and disputed, as one might expect of a musical movement that grew from a group that was both marginalised and exploited. Jazz evolved from the fringes of American society into one of the most influential, and enduring, musical movements of the 20th century.
New Orleans in the late 1800s was a remarkably cosmopolitan city, with a more racially egalitarian society than the rest of the American south. In that city, distinct musical trends began to develop, fusing elements of West African musical traditions with European harmonic structures. Musicians used readily available military band instruments left in pawn shops after the end of the American Civil War.
Scott Joplin, “the King of Ragtime”, popularised a music based on jagged (or “ragged”) rhythms, including the habañera, imported from nearby Cuba.
WC Handy, the “Father of the Blues”, travelled through Mississippi collecting and publishing folk songs utilising versions of the now standard “blues” form.
Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented what we call “jazz” in 1902, and did much to popularise the New Orleans sound through newly available recording technologies. By the time he recorded his Black Bottom Stomp in 1926, this new music had travelled as far as Chicago.
That migration, combined with recording technology and Prohibition, brought jazz to an unprecedented number of black and non-black audiences.
During this time Louis Armstrong was at the forefront of jazz. He altered the performance practice of jazz from the traditional texture in which multiple musicians play melody lines simultaneously, to what we now recognise as the individualist, soloist-plus-ensemble format.
The period between 1935 and 1946, generally referred to as the “Swing Era”, saw small, soloist-plus-ensemble bands of Armstrong and others (now called “combos”), largely give way to big bands, consisting of about 18 musicians.
In the early 1940s a schism occurred in jazz that forever changed the face of pop music. Many black musicians resented the success of white bands and, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, returned to the virtuosic combo setting.
“Bebop” was faster and more complicated than anything that had come before it. This was the first time jazz audiences sat down and listened, moving out of the dance halls and into smoky bars. Jazz was becoming art music.
Just as bebop musicians were getting the hang of their new ideas, the Musicians Union in the USA enforced a ban on new commercial recordings as part of a dispute over royalties.
For more than a year, starting in August 1942, almost no instrumental musicians were permitted to make new recordings (vocalists were, rather humorously, not considered musicians, and were exempt from the ban).
Interestingly, record labels came up with the idea of recording completely vocal (“a capella”) versions of popular songs – think of a baby-faced Frank Sinatra in a sort of period prequel to Pitch Perfect.
Before the ban, vocalists were special soloists with big bands, and usually sang a verse or two in the middle of the song. But Tommy Dorsey’s trombone, not Sinatra’s voice, was the important feature. During the ban audiences became accustomed to vocal pop music, and haven’t looked back.
From this split in the early 40s between jazz as art music, and popular music with a vocal focus, the history of jazz follows the art branch (the other turning into the history of Rock and Roll in the subsequent 10 years or so).
From Cool Jazz to Hard Bop
Jazz musicians tend not to stay in one genre too long. Out of the rejection of the fast-paced, complex bebop emerged the late 40s new West Coast scene. Cool Jazz had a more relaxed tempo, with less focus on soloing and a return to ensemble playing.
This caused yet another reaction, resulting in what is known as “hard bop”, which fuses bebop practices with R&B, Gospel and Blues influences, and is generally recognised as the default style practised and taught around the world today.
In 1958, when bebop had taken chord progressions and virtuosity to its extreme, Miles Davis began experimenting with the other logical extreme. Jazz musicians had been playing the same standard repertoire since the days of early bebop, and had become very adept at what is called “running the changes”.
Most songs have similar chord progressions – think of those YouTube videos mashing up dozens of pop hits using the same four chords (I V VI IV progression) – and the same improvised melodies (“licks”) can be used over many different songs. Some musicians became frustrated with this apparently mechanical way of improvising, and devised a solution.
Space, melody and free jazz
If bebop had the maximum number of chord changes, what might happen when there were no, or very few, chord changes? Miles Davis’ Milestones (1958) has only two chords.
Davis sought to encourage melodic improvising by removing the “crutches” of complex changes. This “Modal Jazz” represented a huge shift in the techniques utilised by soloists, encouraging space in solos.
Compare the beginnings of Davis’ solo on So What with the recordings made by Davis with Charlie Parker a decade earlier.
This focus in attention to space and melody, combined with new techniques and ideas coming out of the classical avant-garde gave rise to avant-garde, and eventually “free”, jazz. Starting with The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, Ornette Coleman did away with chords altogether, encouraging musicians to play without being constrained by ideas of Western harmonic and melodic conventions.
This was quickly picked up by a number of musicians all over the world (including, perhaps most notably and importantly, John Coltrane, who had recently left Davis’ band), and gave rise to a wide range of free jazz styles.
These had little to do with each other apart from their shared lineage and their interest in sound, and the unrestricted (or at least, less-restricted) interaction between musicians.
As electronic instruments and funk gained in popularity, jazz musicians quickly jumped on new trends and innovations, starting in 1968 with Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilamanjaro.
As jazz moved through the 70s and 80s various elements of pop music seeped in, with just as many jazz elements seeping out – see David Bowie’s Young Americans (1975), for example.
When speaking of jazz in academia today (jazz theory, jazz aural skills, jazz piano class, etc.), we are using the vocabulary set out by the pioneers of bebop. As with all musics, in order to be studied and integrated into education, jazz had to be codified, and classicised.
To a jazz musicologist, the word “jazz” might connote a living, breathing tradition encompassing hundreds of musics from dozens of countries, fused with local folk and popular traditions.