Have you checked out Harlemology, our collaboration with Dandy Wellington yet? Our last blog post was all about collaborating with Dandy on this very special collection, which features two beautiful new American Duchess shoe styles!
Harlemology by Dandy Wellington is a sartorial love letter to the style, history and people of Harlem. Inspired by early 20th century silhouettes seen on the streets and brownstone stoops of Sugar Hill, this collection seeks to uplift the architects of the neighborhood’s past and highlight many of the custodians of its cultural present.
In addition to working with us design-wise, Dandy contributed the names for our Dandy/Gladys Oxfords and Noble/Rainey boots. Each style is named after a historically significant Black musician who made crucial contributions to the evolution of music in America, amongst other important cultural contributions.
Gertrude Pridgett was born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. From an early age, Gertrude was a talented singer. By her teen years, Gertrude was performing professionally in travelling vaudeville shows, honky-tonk shows, and at carnivals. It was through her performance travels that Gertrude met William ‘Pa’ Rainey, who was a combination comedian, singer, and dancer. They were married in 1904, and subsequently formed a double act. From there on, Gertrude was known as Ma Rainey (together they were Ma and Pa Rainey, of course). Ma and Pa Rainey separated after a little more than a decade of marriage, but the name ‘Ma Rainey’ stuck.
Ma Rainey is cemented in modern history as the “Mother of the Blues.” She had a particularly distinctive singing voice, with a rich and throaty sound. Ma Rainey toured around the country singing the blues and entertaining audiences with her famously vibrant stage persona. Her shows incorporated chorus dancers, comedy, and a dazzling musical performance. Ma Rainey had an iconic sense of style, and audiences were dazzled by her signature flair.
Ma Rainey’s songwriting style didn’t shy away from the reality of life; her lyrics often focused on themes like heartbreak, mental health struggles, and romantic attraction. In some songs, Ma Rainey sang about romantic attraction to women as well as men. Today, Ma Rainey is widely considered to be an iconic queer artist and performer.
Ma Rainey’s popularity continued to spread, and in 1923, she signed a contract with Paramount Records. Over the next 5 years, Ma Rainey recorded over 100 records! Some of her recordings are now in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for their historical significance, including a 1924 recording of “See See Rider Blues” featuring Louis Armstrong.
After her recording contract with Paramount expired, Ma Rainey returned to performing and touring, and she eventually managed two venues in Columbus, Georgia, where she was also active in her church. Ma Rainey passed away in 1939 at the age of 53, but her legacy lives on in legendary status. Rock n’ roll and blues singers like Janis Joplin, and Bonnie Raitt can thank Ma Rainey for her incredible influence on modern music. In 1982, famous playwright August Wilson wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which became a Broadway success. Recently, Viola Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Ma Rainey in the film adaptation.
The Noble Boots are named after Noble Sissle, a multi-talented musician, bandleader, and playwright. Noble Lee Sissle was born on July 10, 1889, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sissle’s father was a minister, and Sissle grew up singing in the choir at his father’s church as well as in his high school glee club.
Sissle continued singing in various groups after high school and college; in 1915, Sissle met composer Eubie Blake. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s artistic partnership would last more than 60 years.
In 1916, Sissle and Blake, along with bandleader James Reese Europe, organized a regimental band for the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. They would later be known as the “Harlem Hell Fighters” Regiment, who served nobly in France during World War I. The Harlem Hell Fighters helped introduce jazz music to the French, and many of them received military awards after the war. For more about the fascinating history of the Harlem Hell Fighters, check out this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.
After their time in service together, Sissle and Blake co-wrote the famous Broadway show Shuffle Along. Shuffle Along was a sensation! It became a hit all-Black Broadway show, and today is considered a seminal work in American Black theatre and in American theatre at large. Shuffle Along is credited with helping to propel the start of the Harlem Renaissance, as it introduced jazz music to Broadway, and helped to launch the careers of Florence Mills and Josephine Baker.
Sissle and Blake continued to work together on other Broadway shows and vaudeville acts through the years. In the 1930s, Sissle helped found the NAG (Negro Actors Guild of America) and in 1937, he became president of NAG. The NAG endeavored to fight stereotyping of Black performers in American entertainment.
Blake and Sissle enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, and together they appeared on the 1969 album The Eighty-six Years of Eubie Blake.
Noble Sissle’s legacy lives on through his recordings, lyrics, partnership with Eubie Blake, and influence on American performers from Fats Waller to Lena Horne. Noble Sissle’s legacy lives on today through the changes he helped implement to the landscape of American theatre and entertainment.
Our ‘women’s’ size band of our Harlemology Oxfords is named Gladys, after American musician Gladys Bentley. Today we remember her as an iconic Harlem Renaissance entertainer.
Gladys Bentley was born on August 12, 1907, in Philadelphia. Bentley started gender-bending at a young age when she began wearing boys’ clothes to school. As an adult, in an interview with Ebony magazine, Bentley said, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought I was.” Bentley defied gender norms and societal expectations of femininity. Instead of dresses or skirts, Bentley preferred to don suits and trousers. As her family wasn’t accepting of her genderqueer identity, Bentley chose to run away to New York at 16 to start her career as an entertainer. In 1925, Gladys Bentley moved to Harlem.
Upon her arrival in Harlem, Bentley started performing at a gay speakeasy, impersonating a male pianist. She would play the piano in a white men’s suit, complete with Eton jackets and a short haircut. Bentley’s act was quite successful, and soon, she was performing all over New York. Eventually, Bentley toured the country with an act that combined comedy and music. The content of her act often focused on her sexuality and identity as a gay person.
With the repeal of Prohibition, speakeasy culture in Harlem declined, and Gladys Bentley took her act to Southern California. Unfortunately, she faced increased harassment for her sexuality and gender expression, and at one point, she was forced to carry a special permit that allowed her to perform in male clothing.
When the McCarthy Era began, Bentley changed her style to be more typically feminine and normative, likely in an effort to protect her own safety. Gladys Bentley passed away rather unexpectedly in 1960 from pneumonia, aged 52.
Today, we remember Gladys Bentley not only as an influential musical talent during the Harlem Renaissance, but also as an LGBTQIA+ icon. Her genderqueer signature style and open embrace of her sexuality were revolutionary at the time. In 2019, The New York Times included Gladys Bentley in their “Overlooked No More” series. This series aimed to correct historical biases in reporting by republishing obituaries for important historical minority persons and women.
It’s an honor for us to have styles in our collection named after Ma Rainey, Gladys Bentley, and Noble Sissle. Of course, it is also a huge honor for us to have a style named after our friend Dandy Wellington in our Dandy Oxfords! Dandy’s impeccable eye for style and creative vision have made our Harlemology Collection what it is.