Saturday, July 18, 2015

Keepin' It Fresh

Summer's in full swing with my second outdoor movie of the week.

Richmond may not have a drive-in, but that doesn't stop outdoor movie lovers from pining for cinema under the stars. Tonight's showing was courtesy of the Afrikana Film Fest and marked the premiere of their new Starry Nite Cinema lawn chair series. Count me in.

Even better, they were screening "Fresh Dressed," which I'd read a review of in the Washington Post almost a month ago but was certain would never play RVA. And, technically, it didn't, since no local theaters booked it.

I know, I know, you're scratching your head wondering why in the world a middle-aged white woman was interested in a film chronicling the complex relationship between fashion and hip-hop. Simple: I'm a documentary dork and I find fashion history fascinating (I just saw "Iris" just last month).

The screening was being hosted on the hill behind Tredegar Iron Works, a great location given that it boasted free parking in their lot and a fine view of the downtown skyline - first in the glow of the sunset and then lit up within - and a narrow peek at the Manchester Bridge high up between two of Tredegar's buildings.

Although I'd brought a chair, I arrived early enough to score a seat in the second row of plastic folding chairs set up in front of the screen.

Off to the left were heart balloons, which indicated the area where Speed Dating RVA was set up beforehand for those "who have a blanket but no boo." Tempted as I was (and I was very, very tempted...for journalistic reasons, of course), I had elected not to sign up.

The film laid out its premise from the opening scenes: being "fresh" meant more than having money to black culture. Even if you didn't have money (or a nice house or a car), you could dress stylishly.

It was an expression of aspiration.

Like all good documentaries, this one had plenty of archival footage, in this case dating back to the '70s and '80s, but the history lesson actually began in slave times when masters ensured that their slaves had Sunday clothes for church.

Explaining that black culture had a unique approach to fashion, they looked at the music's fashions from gospel to jazz to R & B to hip hop, using Little Richard's colorful wardrobe as a particularly strong example of wardrobe demonstrating freedom (to dress like a black Liberace, in this case).

The film traced street fashion's beginnings to the gangs in the Bronx in the '70s through the B boys of the '80s and the glut of hip hop artists with their own clothing lines by the '90s.

Urban boutique owner Dapper Dan, an institution apparently, explains how he started making Louis Vuitton hats and shoes to "blackenize" them, to make them look good on blacks. He says that for 8 years, his shop was open 24 hours a day with occasional 3-hour closings to nap.

I gotta say, this was one of the most educational documentaries I've seen. The bright colors that defined the fashions? Ripped from graffiti artists. The crux of hip hop fashion? You build your outfit off your shoes.

How did Tommy Hilfiger get so popular on the streets? Took his clothes to the hood and passed them out for free. Like a drug dealer, he hooked the kids on the style and then they had to keep buying more.

The film had a terrific sense of humor, putting up definitions for street terms the audience might not know. Urban customer: (noun): scary black or Latino person who wants to spend money.

For those of a certain age, it was also nostalgic, since every decade's urban style represented something I recalled seeing at the time, if only on "In Living Color."

Fully engaged in the movie, it was a shock when the screen suddenly went blank with less than 15 minutes to the end. After a short intermission, the film picked up where it left off, explaining how rappers now aspire to runway fashion over streetwear. Still aspirational, just to a different aesthetic.

Afterwards, I chatted about the documentary with one of the three people - two of whom were jazz guitarists - I'd seen tonight and knew. He recalled what a big deal his first pair of Ecko jeans had been to him in middle school in the '90s.

Can't say I could relate, except to our mutual agreement that it had been a perfect evening for a fashion lesson under the stars...even without a boo for my blanket.

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