The Obamas have pushed traditions like Easter fashion to the forefront of American living

The Tyler family of Palmyra will be looking like this on this Easter Sunday. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )

Michelle Obama got rave reviews this month for the stylish choices she made overseas. With every new day, we saw her wearing another hip designer, like Isabel Toledo, Michael Kors, and Jason Wu.

Yet many of the fashion-conscious are waiting to see what the first lady will don today.

Easter, the holiest of Christian holidays, often has churchgoers breaking out their finest. Not only has the day traditionally meant new clothes, but for African Americans, it historically also has offered a chance to claim dignity within their own communities during times when they weren't respected by society at large.

That means the sartorial choices of America's first hostess of color will not merely make a fashion statement. For many black people, her clothes will communicate something about cultural identity, too.

"I see so much of myself in Michelle Obama," said Leslie Tyler, 40, wife of the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler and "first lady" of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill.

"It's not that her outfits will create a new trend for black women, or women in general," Tyler said. "But we will get more of a window of how she identifies herself as an African American Christian."

There is a stereotypical belief that African Americans elevate fashion, sometimes flamboyantly so, at the expense of everything else on Easter. But many black people say the excitement they are expressing reflects something different.

African American culture - with its lifelong existence as a historical afterthought - is now being thrust into the forefront of American living. With the Obamas as America's most prominent family, generations-old traditions vital to African Americans - including Easter fashion - will be displayed on the global stage.

Will Obama go the traditional route and wear a wide-brimmed hat with a St. John-like suit and white gloves? Or will she choose a more modern sleeveless sheath paired with kitten heels and topped off with a shiny fresh bob?

And the questions don't stop there. What will first grandmother Marian Robinson wear? Will Sasha and Malia be decked out in J. Crew again? How about the children's hair: Shirley Temple curls, soft bobs, pigtails, or natural twists?

Whether intentionally or not, everything the Obamas do on their first culturally significant Christian holiday in the White House will undoubtedly speak volumes, from which church the family will attend this morning to what they will eat for dinner - lamb, ham, or something else.

"These are opportunities where the Obamas are able to communicate with the black community without necessarily identifying themselves to the white community as being too black," said James Peterson, a professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

The Easter egg roll - hosted by Sasha and Malia - is another anticipated event. It was not lost on Obama during the campaign that his election would mean two black girls would be playing on the White House lawn, let alone leading a celebrated tradition. Just a little more than a half-century ago, few black children participated in the Easter egg roll, and those who did were made to feel unwelcome.

Since the days of slavery, Easter has been an important day for African Americans. Because it falls on a Sunday, the holiday guaranteed black people a break from back-breaking labor. And its focus - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - was symbolic of a faith that would lead to better days, namely freedom.

But fashion didn't become a large part of Easter celebrations until well into the 20th century, according to Jonathan L. Walton, the author of Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism and a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside. This was after the Great Migration of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when factory jobs in the North allowed workers some, but not much, disposable income.

Because many black people had blue-collar or domestic jobs that required uniforms, the only days to be fashionable were Sundays. Easter Sunday was even more important because the sporadic churchgoers also were in attendance. This focus on fashion spanned all Christian denominations - from Roman Catholics to Lutherans to Southern Baptists.

"If during the week these people were merely auntie, mama, or boy, on Sundays they became 'Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So' and 'Trustee Such-and-Such,' " Walton said. "Black people were glorifying God, but they were also glorifying themselves as children of God when the majority of the world didn't see them that way."

Plus, with Easter beliefs focused on resurrection, new life, and springtime, wearing ornate hats, white gloves, and pastel colors fit the celebration.

As the holiday became more commercialized with the inclusion of the Easter Bunny, jelly beans, and Easter baskets, the emphasis on style extended to children, said Barbara Savage, author of Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

New clothes - bought or handmade - would be color-coordinated. Girls' hair was always pressed, and boys had fresh cuts. White patent-leather shoes and frilly bonnets were purchased as early as the beginning of Lent. Everything was new, right down to a little girl's ruffled underwear.

Angelean Edwards, 79, of North Philadelphia, raised six children, and each of them had two outfits for Easter: one for Easter Vigil, the other for Sunday morning.

"It all goes back to new life and feeling better about yourself," Edwards said. "This is how we showed our spirituality. We gave up so many things; this was our time to celebrate, and fashion is a form of that."

These days, however, many maintain that fashion as a form of self-importance is a relic from African Americans' segregated past.

According to the University of California's Walton, many black churches have started holding "Come As You Are" services to take the focus off of fashion.

"When you have an increasing number of African American families who have entered the middle and professional classes, there is less emphasis placed on fashion and style," Walton said.

Still, how the first family celebrates Easter - with the world watching - is impossible to ignore.

"Before Michelle Obama became first lady, I know she was in church on Easter Sunday, and she was celebrating with Easter dinner," said Lorraine Ghee, manager of Girard Avenue's Hat Shoppe. "She's now the first lady, but that hasn't changed."


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