Because Black Women Be Finding Their Freedom Through Fashion

“Queenin’: the act of tastefully embracing your individuality; leading by example, living as a muse; an advocate of limitless possibilities.” 

-Molesey Crawford/The Queen Code (a Black Woman who be knowing)

Heeeyyyyy! I hope everyone is having a #SummerSoLit. I’ve been going to author events; went to see Smart, Funny and Black; #AmandaSealesIsSoDope. And I’m absolutely taking lots of motherfucking vacation days. #IdcIdc

Because Black Women Be Knowing has been going strong for the first six months and it’s now in the second half of its birth year, it only felt natural to evolve. BWBK may only be seven months old but it’s feeling grown grown. 

So in addition to writing my dope ass social commentary about dope ass Black women, I’m stepping into doing dope ass interviews and sort of, kind of entering the podcast world. For my first interview, I am sitting down with my girl/ sista/colleague/confidante/forever friend. I call her Everything but her name is Cynthia Gillespie. 

I chose to interview Cynthia first because she has been such an important person/spirit in my life and she was the first person I told about the idea of BWBK. She is one of my many amazing Black women friends who makes up the #squad.

Second reason I chose her is because this has been the summer of fashion. What I mean by that is Black folks are finally getting their credit in fashion in such an extraordinary way. Tanisha C. Ford’s book, Dressed in Dreams, Dapper Dan’s book Made in Harlem and Elaine Welteroth’s book More Than Enough are definitely on my bookshelf right now. Billy Porter is making all the waves and challenging gender norms and patriarchy through his fashion choices and I’m. Here. For. It. Come through Billy!

But as I looked at all of these inspirational folks, I knew that my girl, Cynthia could have easily written a book on fashion, being a Black woman challenging all of the European beauty standards and killing it. She is walking art y’all! 

She is who Outkast was rapping about when they sang, “So fresh and so clean, clean”. Her theme song should be, “Bow down, bitches!” and she makes you wanna get on your Drake and Swizz Beats and be like, ‘Oh you fancy, huh?’

So here are some of the highlights of our conversation and if you want to hear the whole thing, (which you will), please listen to the audio at the top of the page. Enjoy!

Don’t forget to drop comments and share as the spirit moves you. 

BWBK: So for anybody who doesn’t follow me on IG, Cynthia is in a lot of those pictures because she is a Black woman who be knowing and been knowing and our spirits have connected in such a way where… she had to be in my life. I think we both knew that. We had to be in each others’ lives and so we found each other and it’s been magic ever since. So Cynthia is an educator, a Black mama looking fly AF all the time and… fill in the blanks. Cynthia is…

CG: A spiritual person, loving, nurturing, funny AF sometimes, spontaneous…yeah.

BWBK: First things first: If you had to describe your fashion sense in five words or less, how would you describe it?

CG: I had to think long and hard about that but I would say probably, eclectic, soulful… I work to be elegant, royal in a sense and classic. I love classic pieces.

BWBK: We have a group called Black Excellence. There’s about eight of us in this group and Cynthia doesn’t know this but we all chimed in with our words about her style. I got all that intel before we sat down. And we chose three words/phrases each to capture how we [define] her style.

Iris said confident, secure in herself, whimsical.

Nerissa said fly, unique and sexy.

Felicia said dope, sensual and graceful.

Ann said royalty, genuine and power of audacity.

Khalya (me), Yaaaasss!, bold, queening.

Jerome also said bold, visual, assured.

Kristina said avant-garde, eclectic, fierce.

And Melida said inspirational, authentic and she also said fly.

So that’s how we see you on sight.

The next question comes from Ann. Your style is so unique and individual but yet it feels like you’re paying homage to Black women and culture. To what extent do those things inspire you?

CG: I would say absolutely I’m paying homage and the person that I pay homage to firstly is my mother. As you know, I grew up in the South as a pastor’s daughter and my mother was a minister’s wife and so with that title and that responsibility, and even who she was prior to I suppose, she herself came into the game with a sense of dignity and integrity. And so with that she definitely sought to define herself and I saw it growing up really early. 

I remember going to my aunt’s house and watching her and my mom play dress up and they were doing their own fashion shows and saying ‘Giiirrrl, you lookin’ good.” So the first piece would definitely go to my mother who always strove to find and define her own style and of course passed it down to me and my sister. It was always about finding your YOU and not necessarily following what’s on trend. But trying to figure out who you were in the fashion.

BWBK: Hmm. We have talked about that, not following trend; not trying to see what’s in but if you think you’re in all the time then whatever you put on is gonna be in. I think that’s hard for people sometimes to do. So I’m glad you said that. 

You came right out talking about your mom so let’s talk about the Gillespies because they are the ones responsible for all of this dopeness. How did your father respond to your creativity and uniqueness. When did that come up and when did he/they notice that?

CG: So again, my father was a Baptist minister. He held a very important role in our community. He tried to be that image for the community so he definitely drove a Cadillac. He definitely went to the other side of town to have his suits tailor made. Not necessarily expensive but he knew how to find the warehouses or the tailors who could support you in your look. But that was a big thing to him. I remember him and his brothers wearing those fur hats and they had their Cadillacs and trench coats. 

He was from Teague, Texas and he was an eloquent man and for him and my mother, they took pride and took their role very seriously. It looked like they were keeping up with the Joneses in a way but I didn’t see it like that. They wanted to inspire. I remember the first time he realized I had a style. I had gone thrifting and I had bought a jacket and I went to see him and it was a plaid blazer. You know I love plaid. He was like, “Baby, I like that jacket.” I gave it to him and he ended up having it tailored. I was 18…

That idea of having what everyone else had; we couldn’t afford it. So my grandmother was a seamstress, so we had a lot of things made. I got teased. But it started happening very early, as early as 7th grade, I can remember trying to find my style, based on my parents and how they moved. 

I remember I actually designed my own prom dress and found someone in Texas who could make it and it had ruffles. You know I like my ruffles and it had pants underneath.

BWBK: You definitely would’ve been on Black Twitter [for prom pics.]

This is a tag team question from me and Ann: What role does spirituality and ritual play in your fashion?

CG: So we’re reading this book Dressed in Dreams (mentioned earlier) and the author talks about [the fact that] she went to Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta and so I too, attended CAU. And I would suppose my first interaction with someone who was spiritually connected to what she looked like and how she showed up was Renel Lewis and she was my housemate. And it was something about the way Renel moved in her own freedom and her own self-assurance that was so attractive. She had her little short ‘60s afro and I had my little perm, my little press. I was so fascinated by her. 

When I was 18, I went natural and it was through her that I really began to develop a sense of self. The spirit is so aligned with how we show up in the world. And so color choices, my attraction to Native cultures, long skirts, mixed patterns and how you feel in the garment and how it helps you connect to your own sense of self and spirit [became very important.]

So getting dressed in the morning is about what colors am I attracted to? What outlines or what lines I’m trying to create in my body. 

Part of it is bringing in your senses. You could show everything or you could show some and leave some to the imagination to support you in your presentation.

BWBK: That was so elegantly worded. That’s gonna be my new line. What lines in my body am I trying to show right now? That’s gonna be my new ritual in the morning as I’m picking out outfits. 

When we’re in public, people are literally in awe and drawn to you and they feel moved to speak to you. Why do you think people just have to stop and say something?

CG: I think people are making connections. One of the ways I describe myself is vintage or classic. The hair is an afro so sometimes that conjures up, “Oh wow, you look like my mom.” So it takes you back. It’s nostalgic for some people. I think also the gray may also be attractive to people like “Am I gonna go gray? Am I not gonna go gray?” 

In part, I hope to inspire. I think about Marianne Williamson when she says, “Who are we not to be?” Who are we not to be great? Who are we not to be beautiful? By your pure being, you inspire others to be. 

I grayed in my 30s and I remember my friend’s mother said, “You really need to dye your hair. It’s aging you.” At that time, I wasn’t confident enough to keep [my gray hair.] I heard her voice over mine and at some point I had to hear my voice as dominant or even the God within me as dominant. This is how I’m showing up and it was a process. 

BWBK: Your style is consistent not to be confused with predictable. Cynthia at a festival is Cynthia at the office. You don’t have a ‘my work clothes versus my weekend clothes’. Have you ever had someone say your clothes are unprofessional and if so, how did you respond or how did you feel?

CG: I didn’t really hear the word unprofessional [too much]. But I do remember interviewing for a job and they said I was too ethnic. So I didn’t really know what that meant. When I was at Clark-Atlanta, I remember I was working in the Admissions Office and I had bantu knots and they said to me “You cannot wear your hair like that. That is unprofessional.” I didn’t have the wherewithal to protest at the time. But I was so disappointed and disgusted because across town at Georgia State, the kids had green hair and piercings and they had that freedom and I was seeking that freedom at Clark. I had to understand that they were colonized and their definition of professional was what White was… 

I like me and I want to be me all the time.

BWBK: Absolutely. (I actually said a lot more here but you have to listen to it.

Next question: Dapper Dan said the purpose of the designer is to be a translator of the culture. What do you see as the purpose of fashion or your purpose of fashion and does that connect to what you think is your overall purpose on this earth?

CG: Definitely an interpreter of the culture. But I also aspire that who I am reflects a sexual freedom that I think can be intertwined with how you show up in the world and your fashion. I think I said to inspire others. So often, and I’ve done this many times if I have on a pair of earrings or something and someone says, “I really like that but I would never wear it,” I will take it off and I will give it to them. It’s like I have it but you can have it too. I’m not doing anything that anyone else can’t do. 

I want people to know that this is work. It’s work and I think just as we study anything we want to know more about, we learn to study [fashion] and we are inspired by other people and we take from each other and you figure it out. I get inspired by Indigenous cultures. I’m inspired by people just walking down the street. I hope that I can empower other people-women and men. 

BWBK: What are some of your favorite pieces or signature looks?

CG: Probably like a plaid, ruffle bow-licious look or flower ruffle bow-licious. Yeah, I love flowers. I love ruffles. When I was a little girl, my mother had me in this ruffle dress and it had very delicate ruffles and it was a light blue. But I love that idea of the flow of a ruffle either on the neck or a jacket. I love a petticoat and I love the bow-that accent on my neck. It definitely transforms an outfit. 

BWBK: I know when I look at you I think about these cuffs. I’m used to just bracelets on one arm but you came with these cuffs looking like a Black Wonder Woman and you got me some which I’m wearing today. Your headwraps, that is a Cynthia exclusive look and yes, plaid. 

Do you think fashion is missing something right now and if so what is it missing? Or what are you really feeling about fashion?

CG: Because fashion is fast fashion, you’re able to buy lots of clothing for little money. [However,]we’re definitely missing tailored pieces and women of all sizes looking immaculate in a dress because we don’t have the seams. It’s not really built for your body. And under pieces. 

I miss a slip. I’m starting to see the slip as a layered piece. It’s something very sensual, [the way] it feels on your skin. 

What else I think is missing is older Black women in fashion. I think we need to see more mature Black women, being beautiful, stylish cause there are tons of them. They should just be celebrated [as people] we should aspire to.

BWBK: Do you have any final thoughts or final words for women who are hesitant about exploring other ways to show up in their fashion? What’s some words you would give them to start that journey?

CG: I would say just be. I would say play. Play in the mirror… Do your research. Pinterest is a beautiful place to see how you might put patterns and outfits together. We talked about your lines. If a pencil skirt really works for you then you gon’ rock your pencil skirt. If a more A line skirt works for you then rock your A lines. Just have fun with it. I definitely try to have fun. 

BWBK: So tell people, where can we find you?

CG: @willieclara on IG. That’s my mom’s name. 

BWBK: Thank you baby. I love you. I love your style.

CG: I love you too. 

Black women be on trend.

Black women be accentuating their lines.

Black women be celebrating their beauty.

And if you don’t know, now you be knowing. 


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