Fashion is about more than just clothing for Black women. It is an attainable luxury, an integral part of their career success, and a reflection of their achievement, according to new research from Essence magazine. 

For Black women, “fashion is not occasion based, it’s everyday,” says Billie Causieetsko, Fashion Director for Essence. Black women (75%) are more likely than White women (65%) to keep current on the latest fashions. But fashion isn’t about fitting in for Black women; it’s about standing out:

  • 49% of Black women want to be the first to take a look and make it their own, compared to 34% of White women.
  • 73% of Black women see clothing as a way to express themselves.
  • 63% of Black women look for clothing that is unique and detailed, compared to 44% of White women.

Summarizing the deep-rooted cultural reason for Black women’s daring fashion choices, style expert Bevy Smith quips: “People may not always accept you, but we’re used to that!” So for Black women, as Smith sees it, fashion that makes a statement “helps [Black women] feel like they are not invisible.”

In recent decades, Black women’s fashion interests have been shaped by a variety of influences.  The Ebony Fashion Fair, starting in the late 1950s, opened the world of European fashion to Black women in the U.S., by giving them a new way to create and explore their identity.  In more recent times, the fashion choices of Michelle Obama have reminded them that they can find fashion at all price points – from designer brands such as Narciso Rodriguez to mass market brands such as J. Crew – notes Bernice Clark, Macy’s SVP Merchandise Marketing.

Black women are particularly connected to brands. Half (50%) claim that buying brandname clothing makes them feel good, and 63% will pay more for brands that have demonstrated quality. Black women use brands as “shorthand to say who they are, but do not let them speak wholly for them,” notes Robin Givhan, Fashion Editor of The Washington Post. They incorporate brands into their wardrobe, but define their style themselves.

The vast majority of Black women (70%) plan to buy luxury apparel and shoes in the near future. They justify their purchases because of the confidence and image the brand allows them to project, says Rochelle Udell, SVP Creative Director of Chico’s. Brands become their “armor” in a competitive world.

Career Investments

Luxury purchases are also an investment in Black women’s careers. In offices, “they raise the bar of what is appropriate in terms of how much personality and style” they can display, says Givhan. Black women (34%) are more likely than White women (26%) to say their clothes communicate that they’ve made it.

Retailers can reach out to Black women by connecting with them on a cultural level.  Noting that Black women often have issues with the proper fit, Givhan also suggests retailers focus on service. A sales person who promotes the store’s tailoring and alteration services can earn a dedicated customer by showing her that the problem isn’t with her body but with the cut of the clothing.

“The Fashion Imperative: For Black Women, It’s About Standing Out.”  Marketing To Women. Apr. 2010.  (via EPM Communications: Marketing To Women, Apr. 2010.)