“A chief puts on his insignia before exiting his home.” Traditionally, this is the way palace elders might have advised potential chiefs, cautioning them to be deliberate about presenting a good image to the discriminating eyes of society. After all, as a chief - from a political, professional or priestly lineage - you would represent the embodiment of your constituents' highest values. In other words, leadership is not casual. So, as the representative, your people have to recognize you. This just as true for contemporary African Americans in the leadership spotlight as it as for Yoruba princes or chiefs.
Interestingly, as African Americans have started to ascend to executive spaces since the 1970s, there does not appear to have been a deliberate attempt to clearly define a distinct - culturally consistent - dress code for the upwardly mobile. It seems that high powered Blacks are wearing whatever is hip at the time. But when I look back on what was fashionable in the 80's I laugh. When I go back to the 70s' I get confused. And by the time I get to the 60's and beyond, I might as well be looking at hieroglyphs! Rigor mortis fashion is not good for your legendary status.
In all fairness, however, there were so few role models back then, when very few African Americans had taken one top leadership roles. Fortunately, you only need one, classic example to light the way! Let's consider the epic shot of Ali in Kinsasha. He stands out as a larger than life figure in a sea of African supporters. And while the image is loaded with a lot of heroic symbolism, I just want to draw attention to the fact that his dashiki is what actually makes the picture timeless. Even though the picture was taken in 1974, you could wear that dashiki today or ten years from now and still look regal.
Senator As Style Icon
In Nigeria, the suit in the picture above is known as “senator,” on account of the fact that it was a favorite of high ranking government officials (i.e., senators). Lately it has been cropped for a slimmer fit, which gives it a Western look. The slimmer fit also gives the senator more social flexibility and range. That is, you can select fabrics, colors and patterns that will allow you to move more comfortably from a corporate to social environment without ever looking out of place. Likewise, for cultural or religious environments, you might also prefer a looser, more relaxed fit. Either way, variations of this suit can be embellished further with a another garment (i.e., gbariye, agbada or ibora).
[RELATED: Discounts and Sales on Senator Suits]
Do you remember Obama's tan suit scandal? According to one New York lawmaker, the president's tan suit put our national security at risk. I think that's a stretch, personally. But the point is that when you're out in front, what you wear is very important. Your wardrobe definitely matters; it creates the theme for your entire personal brand. Part of being legendary is being memorable, like that epic shot of Ali in Kinsasha.
Dressing Your Age
Another key element to consider is “age appropriateness.” This is a major issue at every stage of your life's journey. In your 20s and 30s, as you're still learning the territory, your wardrobe should reflect the pioneering spirit with which you are approaching every aspect of your life. If you're a 40-50-something professional, it's more likely that you have ascended to senior leadership positions. Again, your wardrobe should bespeak your experience.
Looking ‘age appropriate’ doesn’t mean necessarily looking generic or frumpy. The problem often is the opposite: Up and coming African Americans who are trying to not look square and think they are being trendy, but they end up looking a bit tacky at worse or a little too casual, at best. There are very real limits to the "mix and match" style that has become so popular as of late. You need a suit!
You definitely want to wear a suit that fits your developmental stage and at the same time takes advantage of the fashion trends of the day. Nowadays, African American professionals have the opportunity to be more original and adapt their wardrobes to their lifestyles, which absolutely includes wearing traditional African apparel in the office and at social events other than Kwanzaa and the Black History Month shindig.
Six Style Tips For African American Leaders
For the African American whose leadership role is not quite presidential, but still in the spotlight, here is a short list of style tips that will help ensure your audience discusses your ideas and not your style:
1. Exude confidence and creativity. This has a lot to do with the totality of your clothes, grooming and attitude. Your hair has to be neat and well-kempt. Hands and nails clean and your clothes should be well pressed and fit perfectly. Power is magnetic – remember President Obama, whose brand set an all new standard of excellence for the world to emulate.
2. Be “fresh,” but not “trendy.” African Americans in a leadership role should be classic and impeccably put together. Deep, rich colors, flattering designs and quality fabric transcend time and trends. In short, it’s worth spending a little money on traditional African clothes.
3. Think color. Red and black convey leadership and power. Use them strategically and consistently. White and Pastels convey coolness and vitality. Earth tones, like tan, brown and olive, convey being grounded. It's best practice to pick your colors according to the seasons.
4. Absorb the local flavor. In the Bay Area, outdoor apparel is part of "the look." In Los Angeles, you can definitely see the effects of Hollywood glimmer. Wherever you are, pick up on the local style and let it accentuate your African attire.
5. Develop a day-to-night style. Sometimes, your days are long but you can't do a wardrobe change. You can still go from the work space to dinner if you set it up properly. Your black or navy blue senator suit should include a full sized agbada, which would be cumbersome at work but you could put on for dinner and be very dashing.
6. Let it shine. Your style is based upon what fits best and projects an image that makes you look good and feel relaxed. If you have to fake it, then it cannot be called success.