Dyese Matthews discusses how clothing contributes to the Black experience


Liberation Through Fashion event featuring guest speaker Dyese Matthews in the French Auditorium on Feb. 8.

The way we express ourselves through fashion, hair or accessories affects our experiences in life, according to Dyese Matthews, a Central Michigan University alum, and currently Ph.D candidate for Apparel Design at Cornell University.

Matthews gave a presentation on her fashion exhibition she created during her master’s at Iowa State University, “Collegiate Fashion and Activism: Black Women’s Styles on the College Campus.” The presentation was from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Feb. 8 in the French Auditorium. 

“When I got there (Iowa State University) I knew I wanted to highlight a passion of mine,” Matthews said. “I was talking to the director of the department head about how I loved that I get to curate this exhibition, but I don't really see much in the collection about the Black experience.”

The core concepts for the exhibition that Matthews researched around were the concepts of "soul style" and "fashion activism" in the modern world. Taking these terms into account, Matthews used them to explore Black women’s fashion and how they express activism, Blackness, or their identities through fashion, in predominantly white spaces on a college campus. 

Matthews interviewed 15 women on campus for her research in order to create a virtual database. She would go to each of these women’s homes or a public space where they had access to a private room. The purpose of this, Matthews said, was so she could have access to their closets.

“During the interview, they'll talk to me about their experience on campus. What’s going on? Are they feeling safe? How do they feel in the community?,” she said. "In that same conversation they'll pull out a t-shirt or a jacket and say something like, ‘Oh, I wear this to so-and-so’s every Wednesday, and that's where me and my friends meet and I feel really comfortable in that space’. Or, ‘I wore this t-shirt to a party and I felt super unsafe.'” 

Along with these conversations and articles of clothes, Matthews had each of these women share three to five images where they felt they were expressing their “Blackness”. These images were enlarged inside the gallery.  The purpose of enlarging the images was to give Black women the opportunity to be represented with power and authority on a predominantly white campus that displays images typically only of white men. 

Matthews showed a video on full display of the entire exhibition. She highlighted 11 vignettes, or themes of the fashion in her exhibition. 

These included: 

  • Messages of Strength
  • 90’s Throwback
  • Matriarch
  • Self-Created Expression 
  • Powerful Words
  • Black Girl Accessories
  • Pride in Skin Tones 
  • Cause Solidarity 
  • Yes, I Can!
  • Fearless Expression
  • Connection to Roots

For each of these vignettes, Matthews shared how one or more of the 15 women expressed the message in their everyday clothing, with quotes on why the clothing is special to them and why they choose to wear it.

“It’s just empowering in the sense that these women are carrying or continuing with their tradition," Matthews said. "It doesn't have to be super elaborately done, it's just how they dress themselves in their everyday lives."

To view Matthew’s exhibition, click here