When I hear the word slay, I think of models strutting on runways in crazy high heels looking very much in need of a sandwich or two. Women wearing fake hair, fake breasts, and fake butts. And, well, to put it frankly, poor behavior — think Elektra Abundance in FX's Pose. It's a word that brings so much drama, so much extra-ness that I don't see it as the compliment it's meant to be. Why would a down-to-earth woman like myself ever want to slay?
But author, fashion journalist, and pop-culture critic Constance C.R. White has convinced me otherwise. Her book How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style is a comprehensive look at African Americans' contributions to the fashion industry past and present. Slaying is a rich part of my history.
Because White concludes that at the heart of how we slay — whether wearing natural hair, sporting Kente cloth, choosing a baggier jean over a more fitted one, going makeup-free, or beating our faces within an inch of their lives — is authenticity. And without this realness, White says, it's impossible to slay.
White, who will sign copies of How to Slay in Philadelphia this month, says, "When we are slaying, we are at our best."
As White prepares for her Philly journey, black people finally seem to be getting our due in the higher echelons of the persnickety style industry. Black women have landed 10 covers of the world's most influential fashion magazines. Yasss, black women — with our glorious natural hairstyles, stunning ruby lips, and chiseled chocolate arms — are on 10 covers (and the full list isn't even out yet). Now that's slaying.
The word slay, of course, means to kill, as in the medieval tale of St. George slaying the dragon. According to Robert Chapman and Barbara Kipfer's Dictionary of American Slang, slay first appeared in the English language in the 16th century as a trendy way to describe impressing someone so much they lose control of their emotions and die. It was most commonly used in the context of laughing oneself to death.
Slay emerged as a fashion colloquialism in the 19th century as a way to describe a person who was dressed to kill. In that context, slaying began to take on sexual undertones, as in, "I look so good I slayed her."
Gay black men began using the word in earnest in the late 1970s and 1980s and slay became the cornerstone of the ballroom lexicon as show in the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning. A queen dressed to the nines slayed chile, she slayed! Fast-forward to the early aughts, when gay best friends had become the norm in chick flicks that introduced many of us to these fabulous parts of speech.
Those films, coupled with the popularity of RuPual's Drag Race, brought slay into the mainstream. In 2016, Beyoncé instructed the Bey Hive (and beyond) to slay while getting into "Formation," and just like that, slay became synonymous with not just fashion; it defined success and achievement. We slay on the job. We slay in the kitchen. We slay on Instagram.
It's slay, in this hashtag form that inspired White to use it in the title of her book.
"Slay is a term that's broadly understood to mean success and accomplishment," White said. "In this way, it reflects the intersection of fashion and African American vernacular."
Published this year by Rizzoli in New York, How to Slay is a collection of White's essays that explore all the ways black people consider themselves well-dressed. Topics include original divas, the beauty of natural hair, Afro-chic, and Ebonics. Each essay is accompanied by a host of historical photographs of black women and men — most of whom are celebrities — to illustrate the point. The photos were taken early in their careers, when they were defining their personal style — and when, some would argue, they were at their blackest.
We get to see Luther Vandross in his Connecticut home, sprawled out all sexy-like on an animal print rug, as well as rappers Salt-N-Pepa in leather pants, doorknocker earrings, and asymmetrical haircuts. Beyoncé is included in the mix too, not in her "Formation" getup, but as she's seen on the cover of her first solo album, Dangerously in Love.
"How to Slay is a celebration, but I also wanted it to serve as a documentation of the contributions of black style to fashion," White said, explaining why she also included in the book images of Mark Wahlberg and Gwen Stefani, two pop artists who copied their style from hip-hop culture.
"There has been a historic exclusion of blacks from the fashion industry, so there is this idea that black people have not contributed to fashion and style, when nothing can be farther from the truth."
The release of How to Slay turned out to be serendipitous, as this is a time when some of the industry's highest-profile brands have put black people in powerful positions.
Late last year, British Vogue tapped British Ghanaian fashion journalist Edward Enninful to be the magazine's first black editor-in-chief. In March, Louis Vuitton, arguably one of the world's most influential houses, named Ghanaian American designer Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-white, creative director of its men's line.
And then there is this month's biggest fashion story: Last week, American Vogue unveiled the cover of its most important issue of the year — the September Issue — featuring Beyoncé. But Queen Bey, although radiant on two covers, wasn't the biggest news. It was that the issue marks the first time the cover was shot by a black photographer, 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell. (Yes, really, the first time.)
"We still have a large amount of work to do," White said. "I mean, this historic first is happening and it's 2018. I don't believe it, and, then again, I really do believe it."
It's also worth noting that not only was Beyoncé on the cover of American Vogue in a red, black, and green (the colors of the black nationalist movement) tired gown by Alexander McQueen, she was joined by a plethora of black celebrities as models on many of the top fashion magazines this fall.
Rihanna is on the cover of British Vogue — the first black woman ever to grace the UK's fashion bible's September issue. Zendaya is on the cover of Marie Claire. Tiffany Haddish is on Glamour. And Tracee Ellis Ross is all smiles on Elle Canada.
"The bottom line is we have black women on the covers of some of the most important fashion real estate in the world right now," White said. "This is big."