By Glory Ngwe, CNN
(CNN) — Whether it’s the ripped jeans and studs of 1970s punk or the heavy make-up of 1980s new romantics, the visual politics of alternative (‘alt’) fashion have always been proudly divergent from mainstream culture. Aligned with music scenes and subcultures as far back as the 1950s and 60s, from rockabilly and the hippy movements to the grunge and rave of the 1990s and the noughties’ emo and cyberpunk, these are ‘scenes’ long synonymous with angst and rebellion.
But the alt space — both in music and fashion — has often felt unwelcoming to Black creatives. Despite pioneering alternative Black artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who fused gospel with her electric guitar as early as the 1930s to earn the moniker “the godmother of rock ’n’ roll,” and the daring, dramatic look and sound of Little Richard in the ‘50s, alternative popular culture has been dominated by White people.
It’s a reality discussed by British alternative rock band Skunk Anansie. The group has both a Black bassist and lead singer, Skin, who told The Guardian in 2020, “We don’t get anywhere near the recognition we deserve, because our faces weren’t what the establishment wanted to define Britain.” Willow Smith has also spoken of experiencing similar prejudice, telling The Face in 2021, “Black people created rock music. But we have been so indoctrinated, so conditioned to believe that we only thrive in certain categories and entertainment. And that’s just not OK.”
But new movements — this time on social media — are shaking things up. With 1.8 billion views on TikTok, for example, #altfashion in 2023 is once again making a statement. The staple elements remain — teen angst, anti-status quo, political dissatisfaction and an “I am who I am whether you like it or not” vibe — but now alt fashion is a space where Black people are working to reclaim and solidify their presence, showcasing their distinctive flair in the alternative world that has often turned its back on them. At the time of writing, on TikTok, #blackalt has almost 170 million views.
What does the hashtag represent? Expect different, sometimes polar opposite sartorial references; mixing barbiecore (which utilizes light and bright colors like pink and white) with emocore (which embraces deep tones like black and purple) color palettes, for example, or pairing old-school alt fashion pieces such as fishnets with Y2K and modern elements — earmuffs, leg garters, multiple belts, faux fur and a shower of accessories.
Then there’s the wildly popular #aliyahcore movement, which refers to a trend created by Aliyah Bah, better known as “aliyahsinterlude” on social media. Aliyah, a 20-year-old influencer based in Atlanta, was the first person to coin the #aliyahcore hashtag during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when she began posting outfits and “Get Ready With Me” videos on TikTok. At the time of writing, she has over 2.6 million followers on that platform, more than 620,000 followers on Instagram, and 370,000 on Twitter. In a video call with CNN, she described #aliyahcore as a style mixing aspects of 2000s Y2K fashion and streetwea with Japanese-inspired Harajuku and Gyaru culture.
“It transcends fashion,” Aliyah said of the movement. “It starts with not caring about how you’re being perceived, not caring about who or what anyone has to say about you because you know who you are, and you carry that energy with you in your day-to-day life.” #aliyahcore also speaks to the issue of Black girls, specifically dark skin girls, not feeling welcome in the fashion world due to colorism and other negative stereotypes.
“I feel like me being a darker skinned Black woman (means) I have to work 10 times harder,” she said. “A lighter skinned person could do this alternative stuff and people would eat it up, but when it’s on a darker skinned person we get this negative connotation… when you’re Black you’re kind of demonized for it.”
“We don’t really see dark-skinned women in fashion spaces that often,” Aliyah continued. “I’m glad to be an influence to darker skinned girls.”
White people have also been more easily able to navigate the space of “public rebellion,” expressing themselves and publicly conveying a sense of being anti-status quo without much fear of negative or violent consequences. For Black people, participating in a fashion or subculture that promotes unapologetic self-expression is daunting — take the highly politicized and often violent reactions to the Zoot suits worn in the 1930s and ‘40s. These sharply tailored yet voluminously draped blazer and pant sets (often accessorized with a fedora or trilby-style hat) were popular in the jazz, blues and dancehall scenes in Black and Latino/Chicano neighborhoods across America, but their wearers became the target of racial violence. Historian Kathy Peiss, author of ”Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style,” is credited in Smithsonian Magazine as saying it was “perhaps the first time in American history that fashion was believed to be the cause of widespread civil unrest.”
Navaeh Davis, a 17-year-old influencer from New York City, said the inclusivity within today’s #aliyahcore community makes her feel safe in her sense of style.
“There’s been multiple times where people would definitely treat me a little bit different,” she told CNN via Zoom. “I feel like (people) make misconceptions about my character even though they’ve never even talked to me or been close to me at all because of the way I dress.”
The inclusivity within the #aliyahcore community is refreshing, Navaeh explained. “When you meet another person who’s also into alternative fashion, who also has their own style and are 100 percent themselves… it’s just amazing.”
“I think, particularly, as persons of color who feel like people do not see them or hear them… the way we say ‘here we are,’ is how we dress,” said Holly Alford, Director of Inclusion and Equity and Senior Director of Design for Virginia Commonwealth University of the Arts.
But not everyone is happy about the ubiquity of #aliyahcore. Many Black women who have been dressing similarly before the trend blew up have expressed feelings of frustration about having their authentic style “erased.”
“I think the biggest misconception about #aliyahcore is that a lot of people think I’m saying I created every subset, every little detail,” Aliyah said in response. “In reality, it is different styles just put together into one.”
Aliyah and Navaeh have been social media mutuals for some time, but in February they met up for the first time in real life. There, Aliyah gave Navaeh her own personal #aliyahcore make-over.
“It felt like home,” Navaeh said of her resulting look.
“#aliyahcore today, tomorrow and all of 2023,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “Period!”
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