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Fashion, Statement: The Legacy Of Marian Anderson's Fur Coat

Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939. Even as her mink coat might have served practical purposes, it was also richly symbolic.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939. Even as her mink coat might have served practical purposes, it was also richly symbolic.

As one of the 20th century's most venerated vocalists, Marian Anderson performed in stately concert halls and grand opera houses around the globe. But the site of her best-remembered concert was a wooden platform erected on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On April 9, 1939 — a chilly Easter Sunday afternoon — Anderson performed there, after she was barred from singing at Washington, D.C. venues that enforced "whites-only" policies. The concert was carried live by NBC radio, so that far-flung listeners could tune in to hear Anderson's majestic contralto in a program that ranged from "America" to Schubert's "Ave Maria" to African American spirituals.

Yet Anderson's concert was as much a visual spectacle as it was a sonic event. African American newspapers ran photographs of Anderson on their front pages, touting the concert as a landmark in the struggle for civil rights. Newsreels showed the sea of people, many visibly decked out in their Sunday-best attire, who had gathered to witness her sing.

Although many activists had worked to secure the Mall for Anderson's concert, the most iconic images of the day show her as a solitary figure, bravely lifting her voice on behalf of her fellow Americans. In these images, Anderson stands before a hedge of microphones, the white marble colossus of a seated Abraham Lincoln rising up behind her. The viewer's eye is drawn to the visual parallels between Anderson and the Great Emancipator, both of whom look out upon the crowd. Even the styling of their attire is similar. Lincoln is portrayed in an unbuttoned frock coat, while Anderson wears a full-length mink opened to reveal an embellished jacket and matching skirt.

Anderson's fur coat has always drawn me to this image. The weather was chilly that April afternoon — The Washington Post put the high temperature of the day at 47 degrees — so it was hardly unreasonable for her to wear mink to stay warm for her performance. And it was Easter Sunday, an occasion for women and men of all stations to dress up and be seen in their festive attire. A society columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American even noted that "Marian's minks" set the tone for holiday parades that saw many women wearing fur toques instead of spring bonnets.

And yet even as it might have served practical purposes, Anderson's mink was also richly symbolic. At a moment when she was singing in the national commons, Anderson chose to dress in a way that emphasized her regality as an internationally renowned artist. Given what she later recalled as her nerves on that day, the costly coat may also have served as a talisman, steeling her to perform what scholar Farah Griffin has described as black women's symbolic work of singing for American democracy.

The coat was also a tangible reminder of the conditions that had caused organizers to seek an outdoor venue for Anderson in the first place. Addressing the audience before her performance, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes used the concert's outdoor setting to make a political point, declaring that "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free." But his lofty words did not change the fact of racial segregation as it was practiced in the nation's capital. Nor could they change the ways that black women experienced racism as an affront to their value and standing as women. When Anderson wore fur that day, she presented a figure of black female beauty and elegance that would have resonated with black audiences, especially black women.

Anderson's coat links her to other black female entertainers who, in the decades before consumers and manufacturers began rethinking the use of animal pelts, used fur garments to express important aspects of their public personae as black women. Of course, fur has long been a staple of celebrity fashion, and both men and women have worn it as an expression of extravagance and indulgence. But wearing fur had particular resonance for 20th-century black female stars, who used fur jackets, hats, and stoles to fashion themselves as women who were worthy of respect and admiration — and sometimes even to question the class and race assumptions that defined female respectability.

Fur was also aspirational. At mid-century, it was marketed to American women as a commodity linked to middle-class marriage — as something husbands bought for their wives to display their prosperity. Anderson took a different tack, representing her many fur garments as elements of her "working uniform." "I like simple, tasteful clothes," she observed in her 1956 memoir, My Lord, What a Morning, which devotes a full chapter to describing the seriousness with which she approached the labor of creating a pleasing visual "impression" for her audiences. "I do not go in for things that dazzle, for I am not a dazzler, and pay much more attention to my concert costumes than to my everyday clothes."

Not all black female musicians took as practical an approach to the work of image-making as Anderson, who was known for taking an iron and even a sewing machine on tour with her. For blues singers like Bessie Smith, an extravagant image was de rigueur, whether performing under a makeshift tent or at a sophisticated urban nightclub. Smith's glittering headdresses, long strands of pearls, feathered dresses, and luxurious furs (including bristling raccoon coats then widely in vogue) were elements of a sensuous display that affirmed working-class black women's worth and desirability, much like the speaker of Smith's famous song, "Young Women's Blues," who boasts of being "as good as any woman."

Unlike Anderson, who wore her mink coats with the stately seriousness of a German lieder, Smith embraced the voluptuousness of fur with a jaunty breeziness. As an opera singer, Anderson moved in a culturally and economically elevated musical sphere. But Smith sang to men and women who were seen as less respectable consumers of music. Her songs could paint enticing pictures of worlds in which women ventured out boldly in search of the luxury they deserved. As she sang on "If You Don't I Know Who Will," a 1923 blues featuring Fletcher Henderson on piano, "Daddy, I want some furs and things/ Daddy, I want the diamond rings. ... Won't you give me what I want, daddy do/ If you don't, I know who will."

Rosetta Tharpe modeled a more holy variety of the blueswoman's effusive style. The original gospel provocateur, Tharpe was known for her sartorial as well as musical boldness, rocking furs and electric guitars when other female gospel musicians were sticking to simple gowns and traditional instruments. Proud of her achievements in a field whose biggest stars never attained the wealth of their secular peers, Tharpe let it be known in the late 1940s that she required a special climate-controlled barn for her furs and gowns at her newly purchased Richmond home. (She had had to buy some of them in department stores where black women were not allowed to try on clothes.) A 1947 photograph shows her with her singing partner Marie Knight, flush with success before a throng of St. Louis fans, resplendent in fur stoles that are glamorous but still within the bounds of churchly taste.

Fur was a requisite costume of the jazz chanteuse, who was expected to project an air of glamour even as she dealt with the indignity and inconvenience of racial segregation. The histories of black female touring jazz musicians are filled with stories of women readying themselves for performances in makeshift "dressing rooms." The jazz historian Sherrie Tucker has used the phrase "glamour as labor" to describe the efforts of female jazz instrumentalists who strived to look "fresh as a daisy" night after night despite limited access to hotels or restrooms.

Taking a public stance against Jim Crow could prove costly for such musicians, who were often subjected to police harassment. When Ella Fitzgerald challenged the segregationist seating policy of Houston's Music Hall in 1955, she and her fellow musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were arrested on trumped-up charges of gambling. According to historian Aimee L'Heureux, "Five officers in regular clothes obtained backstage access and burst into Ella Fitzgerald's dressing room with guns in hand." They found Gillespie and Jacquet playing craps, while Fitzgerald and her assistant Georgiana Henry looked on between sips of coffee and bites of pie.

Images captured by photographers tipped off to the "sting" operation show the four at a police station, waiting to be booked and fined. Fitzgerald, who had rhymed "sable" with "Gable" (as in Clark) in "I Got a Guy," her late-1930s collaboration with the Chick Webb Orchestra, sits on a bench in an elegant dress and fur stole, wearing a look of profound annoyance. The relaxed body language of the group suggests it was not the first time they had experienced such provocations.

Billie Holiday, whose career was dogged by prurient interest in her addiction to drugs, was also hauled before authorities wearing fur. At a 1949 San Francisco arraignment for opium possession (a rap she would later beat), Holiday drips glamour in a full-length coat and an elegant turban, her dark glasses and averted gaze denying the viewer access to her interiority. Her ghostwritten autobiography Lady Sings the Blues describes another occasion in which Holiday, thrown into a cold jail cell with her beloved chihuahua Pepi, uses her costly blue mink coat as a blanket for them both.

Famous for her ability to convey a range of emotions with her vocal instrument, Lady Day could evoke different moods through her self-costuming. The woman who made white gardenias into a symbol of lush femininity could wear an expensive fur coat like a million-dollar princess or with a droll nonchalance that conveyed a disdain for bourgeois propriety. According to Jasmine Sanders, a journalist who has written about African American women and fur, Holiday donned fur "the way you would wear a motorcycle jacket," looking every bit the "hip kitty" her autobiography purported her to be.

For the most flamboyant dresser of this year's Turning the Tables honorees, fur was one fashion accoutrement among many. Celia Cruz's look embodied her embrace of fashion as fantasy, even as her music demonstrated an exacting commitment to the complex precision of Cuban polyrhythms. Furs, feathers, glitter, jewels, wigs: Cruz wore them all in occasionally riotous celebrations of color and texture. The woman who urged her listeners to sing back at life's cruelties— "Ay, no hay que llorar / Que la vida es un carnaval/ Que es más bello vivir cantando"—regarded the carnivalesque extravagance of outrageous fashion as strategy of survival.

Black female entertainers of later decades continued to embrace fur, injecting it with new meaning as musical expression changed. Aretha Franklin, a lover of fashion, famously used her fur coats as stage props at moments of emotional intensity. When Franklin dramatically unburdened herself of a full-length fur during her 2012 Kennedy Center tribute to Carole King, the crowd of notables in the Opera House rose to its feet, as though the coat were a lever. "Watching Franklin toss her furs to the ground was a glorious sight," wrote Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, in a posthumous appreciation of her sublime "coat drops."

While Franklin's style was defined by the glamour of black churchwomen, whose meticulously chosen Sunday ensembles expressed their divinity, the stylistic strategies of hip hop-era women have been filtered through the sartorial radicalism of Black Power. When pioneering emcee Lil' Kim promoted her debut album Hard Core with a now-famous image of her squatting provocativelyin a leopard-print bikini and matching jacket, she was channeling Blaxploitation film heroines like Cleopatra Jones, who oozed sexiness and a take-no-prisoners confidence. The "big pimpin'" era of hip hop culture — associated with male rappers like Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy as avatars of masculine extravagance — was similarly a nod to the Blaxploitation aesthetic of rakish, fur-clad black masculinity.

For black female musicians in the 21st century, fur can be particularly powerful because of the ways it has been publicly shunned. For evidence, we need look no further than Beyoncé's groundbreaking visual album Lemonade, the cover of which features a still photo from the video for the track "Don't Hurt Yourself." Filmed in a dank underground parking lot, the video shows the star wearing gray leggings and a crop top under a distinctive fur coat by Hood by Air, the edgy label helmed by black designer Shayne Oliver. As she spits out the song's bitter lyrics, the fur — which hangs from a thick leather strap around her neck — sways with her as she struts and glowers at the camera.

It's an arresting image of rage ostensibly directed at the singer's philandering lover, but easily extended to a nation that has long been "unfaithful" to black women. (The connections are hammered home in the many audio and visual allusions to the human catastrophe set in motion by Hurricane Katrina.) In such a context Beyoncé's vaguely menacing, androgynous coat stylistically translates the song's warning: Don't mess with me unless you want to get messed with.

The pointed message of Beyoncé's fur coat — worn in an era when celebrities, working with professional stylists, understand their power as fashion arbiters — is in many ways a far cry from the integrationist message conveyed by Anderson's more decorous mink on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But as a fashion statement, it bears the traces of Anderson's radical challenge to the norms of her day. By standing before the massive crowd, Anderson expressed the aspirations of the nation. Wearing a coat whose ample collar gives the impression of epaulettes, Anderson steeled herself for a moment of political and social battle, using her professionalism, her voice and her strategically diverse repertoire as her "weapon."

"What becomes a legend most?" asked the Blackglama mink advertising campaign, which, in 1970, at the height of Black Power, featured a starkly lovely portrait of the African American prima donna Leontyne Price wearing a fur coat. Anderson, then in her 70s, never got her Blackglama moment. But she was not forgotten by the Black Power generation. Writing about her in 1972, in program notes for the first festival of African American performing arts at Lincoln Center, the TV and performing arts producer Ellis Haizlip remembered witnessing Anderson's 1939 concert. Although in 1939 the Mall was celebrated as a symbol of American democratic values, Haizlip reminded readers that as a black child growing up in the District of Columbia, he did not take his "ownership" of its buildings or grounds for granted. By implying that formal integration had not solved the problem of black performing artists' "rights" to occupy prestigious stages, he insisted on the ongoing relevance of Anderson's historic concert.

While it is easy to memorialize Anderson's National Mall concert as part of a pre-integrationist moment that we have happily overcome, in other words, it is more properly understood as performance whose "vibrations" continue to resonate in the era of Black Lives Matter. Standing before the massive crowd, arrayed in a thick fur that conveyed her stature and dignity, Anderson not only sang for the day but for the future.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gayle Wald
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