How do Black art and creativity help imagine new worlds? How does fashion help us think about the intersection of power and desire? What can we do to make space for public scholarship and community engagement in our work?

In Episode 45 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, Cathy Hannabach interviews Tanisha C. Ford about her research on the cultural and political dimensions of Black fashion, the state of contemporary critical fashion studies and its possible futures, how creative practice and academic work can inform one another, and why Black art and creative genius are key to her mode of imagining otherwise.

Guest: Tanisha C. Ford

Tanisha C. Ford is an Associate Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of the book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2015), which narrates the powerful intertwining histories of the Black Freedom movement and the rise of the global fashion industry. Tanisha studies social movement history, feminist issues, material culture, popular culture and entertainment, and fashion, beauty, and body politics. She is also the co-founder of the innovative material culture pop-up lab, TEXTURES. Her public writing and cultural commentary has been featured in diverse media outlets and publications including the New York Times, the Root, the New YorkerEbonyNPR, and Feministing. 

We chatted about

  • Fashion and the dressed body as a site for historical and contemporary cultural analysis (02:35)
  • The state of fashion studies in the academy today and its future directions (04:21)
  • Blending art and activism with scholarly work and being a public intellectual (08:50)
  • Collaborating on the T E X T U R E S Material Culture Pop-Up Lab (12:13)
  • Being bold in one’s work (14:21)
  • Public scholarship and writing for multiple audiences (17:03)
  • Imagining Otherwise (24:14)


The social, cultural, and political dimensions of clothing

“Clothes are material objects, they are artifacts that tell us their own narratives about the past. They can lead us in a variety of directions, be it through personal ownership, first and secondhand markets, issues related to the supply chain, or sustainability. All of those things come to life through our clothes. Every day when we make that choice to get dressed, we are making a conscious choice to do so, considering a number of different personal and social factors.”

The history and racialization of fashion studies

“Africanists have been doing work related to fashion, dress, and power for decades. They offered a really great model for me, in the field of African history, African studies, Asian history, Asian studies, and Asian American studies. These are fields that have long seen the value in this type of critical engagement. It’s a way to talk about governmental politics, geopolitics, and economic concerns. Scholars of North American history and studies are really just starting to engage in these fields in ways that other scholars have long been doing.”

Tanisha’s desire to bring creative energy to her writing

“This is the work that fuels my soul. How can I use the arts and the written word to get my community free? For me, I look back at other historical moments like the 1990s and being a young Black girl coming of age, or the 1970s and hearing the stories from the 1970s from my parents about the Black Arts movement.”

Tanisha’s advice for doing innovative work

My best piece of advice is to be bold. Whether you want to become a professor, an archivist, a public historian, work in museum spaces, or historical societies, I think the key is to be bold. You have to be true to yourself as a thinker and as a creative. Create the project that resonates most in your own spirit, but that also has those sound methods for whatever field you see yourself going into. While you’re doing that, you are also networking with like-minds and those that have institutional power in the spaces that you want to be. It’s that bold thinking that allows you to give the world something new.”

Public scholarship

“I love writing for public audiences, and not just writing for them, but engaging with them. I find that when I write public pieces, you get this instantaneous response from people. You can even see how your thoughts generate other thoughts among different groups of people who engage with the work, and how then those conversations inspire your thinking. Public writing is a way to really have this instantaneous engagement with our ideas. The ideas don’t necessarily have to be fully formed and ready for peer review before you introduce them to the world.

Imagining otherwise

“First and foremost, I want a world where my loved ones can make it home safely at night. Where I don’t have to worry that they will be assaulted, arrested, unfairly jailed, murdered by agents of the state, by vigilantes, by people who have a fear of Black bodies, trans bodies, gender nonconforming bodies, and differently abled bodies. That is my first and foremost goal, we as a global society recognize each other’s humanity, as beings who have loved ones, who are attached to the community, who have dreams and goals and visions and talents. Far too often. that’s not how people on the margins and the margins of the margins are seen. For me, my life’s work is really invested in that so we can be safe to be free. Free to love, free to create, and to imagine the world that we want to live in.”

More from Tanisha

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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