There was a time, not too long ago, when there was a realization in black fashion that given the cultural shift towards a more “magical” — as a well-known rapper once said — treatment of black women, we should dress like this: A lot. This was true of classy event gowns and “legual” women’s clothing, but also when it came to rockin’ the frumpie look.
For many young black women, the sugary sweetness of cornrows — high neck, long sleeves, plus things like a pleated skirt — was a staple of casual go-to black fashion from the early 2000s. The color of fried cornchops also fitted in well with old black-themed nursery rhymes. I remember vividly how, between high school graduations and college applications, we’d show off those gel-ted dressy braids and declare our absurdly short collegiate dreams as the strong-willed spirits of this entire demographic. My 2-year-old didn’t know why, but she did choose to namedrop southern white-girl minks: “Annabelle!” she’d chirp, as if this was something we ought to all do at some point.
And so, when I saw an Instagram photo that hinted at a thing called “mom pantsuit,” I didn’t go to such great lengths to convince Adele that I was a fan: Black is too unromantic or too messy to be the right choice. If I chose white, I’d look like a clownish flower child.
So, when The Associated Press published an image that showed Adele, fresh off her headline-making Oscars performance, in a white pantsuit accompanied by no less than an Oprah interview, I wasn’t expecting much — except that maybe I’d see an old friend whom I’d forgotten all about. “I thought your hair was so pretty!” I said aloud to my 8-year-old daughter, saying this as if she understood that it was an in-joke. “I thought your eyelashes were so fake and low maintenance.”
Indeed, Adele explained that her weave, that futuristic alchemy designed to make her look like a hooded, translucent creature of the night, could be changed at any moment, with a mere swipe of powder. With an afro, she’s even more honest about her hair, admitting to doing hair by herself in a mirror before and after her big awards show appearance. She revealed that she had a sensitive reaction to the show’s finale, too: When she touched her dress, she felt like it ripped away. It’s not all pretty for Adele: Sometimes, even wearing a wavy hairstyle is difficult for her. The truth is, according to her own admission, she is a mess of a person, and these white pantsuits are her meticulously curated way of trying to look otherworldly.
And guess what: It works!
I wasn’t kidding when I pointed out Adele’s white pantsuit to my daughter as an ill-advised gift from her mom. “She looks more well-traveled than you do,” I said. “She had her own minivan from when she was a child and moved into a house in her early 20s.” I don’t even know if I’ve seen Adele’s minivan in the last decade. It’s a popular query among her fans on social media, but Adele never really gives a straight answer about this ride.
I can’t honestly explain my own connection to Adele’s white pantsuit. Her physical appeal is what grabs you first. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hold her up as a role model to a generation of black kids who’ve long longed to feel empowered in a world that’s taught them to soothe black women by denigrating their effort and ambition.
Black women are more commonly chosen to represent the power and privilege that comes with age and commitment and work ethic. That’s fine. But it’s by no means enough. I’m glad that Adele’s white pantsuit — the floral print, the cushioned-yet-visible shoulder pads, the baby-pink cuffs — brought attention back to what my mom used to put on my sister and me as a black girl: beauty.