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Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora

Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis

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1Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora

2London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

3Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis

  • 1 The term was introduced in Tulloch’s research project on “Style-Fashion-Dress: From Black to Post-B (...)

4Carol Tulloch’s The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora foregrounds a genealogy of black style and aesthetics across a diasporic context. Profoundly informed and well assembled, Tulloch’s project investigates individual and collective style narratives from the cross-temporal and transnational canvas of black culture, laying emphasis on particular experiences and aspects from Jamaica to America, to South Africa and Britain. The writer draws from the history of fashion and popular culture to sustain and elaborate on her previously explored thesis on the politics of “style-fashion-dress” (5),1 according to which style becomes a form of agency in the individual’s self-telling of identity. By applying a semiotic reading on an array of photographic material, including postcards, pictures, historical instantanés, and personal archived collections, Tulloch guides the reader through her meticulous mapping of a stylistic ethnography. The objective of this volume is to navigate through the interconnectedness of “objects-people-geographies-histories” (7) in an attempt to historicize, narrativize and perhaps celebrate black style and its practices as a dynamic texture – in the literal and figurative sense – which, because of the historical development of the black culture as one of resistance and resilience, is politically organic.

5The first chapter entitled “Angel in the Market Place: The African-Jamaican Higgler, 1880-1907” focuses on the popular Jamaican figure of the higgler, a colloquial term for the female market trader. Presenting an historical account of the figure within the context of colonial Jamaica, Tulloch brings attention to the emergence of the higgler as a prominent icon in Jamaican culture, arguing that her symbolic representation of a working-class authority was equated with a visible minority culture. Inhabiting an interstitial position between slavery and a partial economic independence in the right to exercise commerce, an interstice created by what Tulloch sees as “[a] surprising anomaly of slavery” (25), not only was the higgler associated with local market culture but also became synonymous with black professionalism. Taking on an analysis of a postcard entitled “A Jamaica Lady,” obtained from the collection of influential local historiographer Aston W. Gardner (1854-1916), Tulloch expands on the elements comprising the higgler’s stylistic disposition, such as the head-portage, jewelry and the apron, while simultaneously explicates how female African-Jamaican traders, despite their enslaved position, acquired a sense of the individualized self through the importance of commercial freedom and styling. The writer ultimately elevates the higgler into the status of an angel—more specifically an “angelic beast” of godliness and power (55)—an argument that, although interesting, could definitely be shielded more effectively from the risk of coming across as romanticized.

6In the second chapter, entitled “‘We Also Should Walk in the Newness of Life’: Individualized Harlem Styles of the 1930s,” Tulloch turns to New York’s interwar period and, in particular, the creative impulse of the Harlem Renaissance. Here, the writer lays focus on two portraits, a photographic piece entitled A Couple in Harlem (taken by James VanDerZee, 1932) and the painting Self Portrait: Myself at Work (produced by Marvin Gray Johnson, 1934). The photograph of the couple posing inside a Cadillac and wearing raccoon fur coats signifies for the writer “the embodiment of black modernity” (59), since it is indicative of VanDerZee’s photographic accounts of the “New Negro,” the novel phase of the African American individual who managed to express their individual identity upon pursuing a promising life up North following the Great Migration flux. In the same vein, the writer performs a critical reading of Johnson’s self-portrait, underlining the latter’s stylistic choices as an alternative—read non-conventional, or even, avant-garde— expression of black masculinity that stands in concert with the ideology of the “New Negro.”

7The icons of Billie Holiday and Malcolm X are the case studies comprising the following two chapters, entitled “‘All of Me’: Billie Holiday” and “‘My Man, Let Me Pull Your Coat to Something’: Malcolm X” respectively. With regard to Billie Holiday, Tulloch provides an enlightening perspective of the life and fashion evolution of the great vocalist, identifying her as a dandizette, a “black female dandy” (90), whose aesthetic perception of the self promotes a consciously performative identity. Besides paying particular attention to the singer’s transition from the individual that was Eleanora Harris to the persona of Billie Holiday, the writer sees Holiday’s decision to openly talk about her substance abuse in her autobiography as an act of candor, assertiveness, and self-definition, which breaks the ties with traditional views of femininity and offers a critical look on female agency; yet, being aligned with the post-feminist understanding of agency, let alone invoking a glamorization of the drug culture, Tulloch’s point may appear couched in contested strands of cultural theory. Revisiting the notion of cool in light of Johnson’s work, Tulloch agrees with bell hooks on what characterizes black male coolness, namely the liberating potential of defining one’s own self. As far as the influential figure of Malcolm X is concerned, Tulloch’s reading, more rigorously now, brings together the political with the aesthetic in deconstructing the radical leader’s appeal and discursive power. The writer adumbrates the sartorial choices of Malcolm X throughout his career and establishes the epicenter race occupied behind each one of them in promoting the leader’s activist persona.

8“You Should Understand, It’s A Freedom Thing: The Stoned Cherrie–Steve Biko T-shirt” is the fifth chapter of this volume wherein Tulloch pays attention to the socio-cultural significance of the Steve Biko T-shirt, a product developed by Johannesburg-based fashion company Stoned Cherrie as an homage to South Africa’s political and cultural heritage in the context of apartheid. In light of that, the writer delves deeper into the black South African struggle and the profile of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko whose death in 1977 triggered cross-cultural activist responses and rendered him an icon of the struggle. In a critical and historical analysis of the T-shirt as a popular culture object, Tulloch delineates the Steve Biko T-shirt as an object of memory that becomes the point of convergence of past and present in conjoining political history with urban aesthetics upon an everyday garment. A point, however, that the writer briefly touches upon and could arguably zoom into is the commercialization of history by the fashion industry and perhaps how the politics of coolness becomes marketable. Most importantly, this chapter concludes with the outline of a workshop, entitled “Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitude” and coordinated by the writer, which explored the idea of freedom through style, incorporating references to what is already introduced with regard to Biko. The outline successfully presents Tulloch’s pedagogic utilization of the tools of style and fashion and can perfectly serve as an effective platform of immersive and educative material.

9The final chapter, entitled “Here: The Haunting Joy of Being in England,” pays tribute to the racial canvas of England with specific attention to the arrival of British colonial migrants in the country and their style narratives. Tulloch’s case subjects here are pictures taken by photographers John Gay (1909-1999) and James Barnor (1929-) whose visual accounts of post-war Britain depict a newly arrived black population in the process of acclimating in urban England. The writer argues that the black experience in the novel environment, as evidenced from the black migrants’ modern attire and posture in Gay’s and Barnor’s pictures, expressed “the joy of simply being” in the sense that black pleasure originated in the knowledge of the new black self and an empowering identity emerging from this context of newness (176, italics in text). Finally, drawing from personal experience, Tulloch brings into the volume an academic letter she received from Caribbean novelist and teacher Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001) which tentatively illustrates much of period black dressing in 1950s England. The writer ultimately underlines that while racism informed the daily reality of black migrants, their style was, according to Tulloch, “a form of levitation” through which the styled black body rose victorious in the processes of becoming and being by developing a self-defining style narrative (193-4).

10 Concluding with the Coda section, Tulloch’s project wishes to highlight the style narratives of the African diaspora as “a quiet revolution” which is run with an “aesthetic of presence” (199), namely what the chapters’ discussion already proposed with regard to the agential power of style in the self-fashioning of identity and personhood. Although one could argue that particular arguments and theoretical strands in the overall work deserve analytic merit, Tulloch certainly traces an African diasporic aesthetic lineage and its politics of “cool response” while successfully articulating the diachronic poetics of black style.

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1 The term was introduced in Tulloch’s research project on “Style-Fashion-Dress: From Black to Post-Black” (2010), appearing in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, 14(3): 273-304.

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Electronic reference

Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis, « Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2017-3, Online since 29 November 2017, connection on 24 April 2018. URL :

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Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis

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