Rachel Powell’s stunning fashion collection is a celebration of black womanhood.
Powell grew up in rural New Jersey. When she couldn’t find clothes that fit right on her body, her grandmother taught her to sew.
“That’s what started my interest in fashion,” Powell says, “just designing clothes that I could personally wear.”
Today, Powell is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in apparel design with a minor in business. She uses her art to tell stories inspired by women often ignored. In her latest collection, Powell’s personal narrative and the rarely told history of a nation built by black women are stitched into each look.
Powell’s collection, ROOTS, at the student-run Cornell Fashion Collective, is striking, beautiful, and political in equal measure.
Powell had the opportunity to share eight to 10 looks in her last show and wanted to make them count. With ROOTS, Powell designed looks that celebrate black womanhood, past and present.
“I wanted to explore the intersectionality of black women in America … the double discrimination that they face,” Powell says.
Throughout history, the voices of black women were too often ignored, omitted, or silenced. It continues today. Even Powell admitted having reservations about tackling such a taboo topic for her collection.
“I was worried about how this would be received and talked to my professors about how to do this right,” she says.
Powell drew inspiration from the African diaspora, the American civil rights movement, and the women who shaped it, like Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur and even a young Ruby Bridges. Her history education — and, in some cases, miseducation — also played a role.
“I’m kind of reflecting on my K-12 history … and how we were taught the same thing over and over again without a lot of variation,” Powell says. “I feel like American history is filled with a bunch of gray areas that, in a sense, our history books were able to make things very black and white.”
Through thoughtful design, Powell figuratively passed the mic to powerful black women and showcased their strength, beauty, and persistence.
These are five of her remarkable designs.
1. The white dress
On the surface, it’s a stark white dress with a fit-and-flare silhouette, a classic look reminiscent on housewives in the 1950s. But this brand of purity and innocence is in direct contrast with the Norman Rockwell portrait of Ruby Bridges that Powell emblazoned on the back of the dress and the small numbers she placed on the front, which represent the night she was raped in high school.
“It’s this idea of a loss of innocence,” she says.
The period was a turning point in America, and that day was a turning point in her life.
2. Make America _____ Again
Inspired by a photo of Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver and other members of the Black Panther Party in big leather coats, Powell made a coat of her own. On the back, an imposing red cross with the words “Make America _____ Again,” a play on the president’s campaign slogan.
“I kind of like giving the power to the audience to fill that in,” Powell says, “… having people reflect specifically on the election and the state of … America.”
With the previous look, Powell let the audience fill in their own thoughts about the state of the nation. With this look, Powell gives her take.
“You have this president who ran on this platform of hate and bigotry. He was specifically endorsed by the KKK, so I was specifically addressing that,” she says.
Sparked by “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary on mass incarceration, Powell designed a jumpsuit complete with stripes to mimic a prison uniform. While the film and the book that inspired it (“The New Jim Crow”) discussed how mass incarceration affects black men, black women are hurt in the struggle as well, behind bars and afterward.
“The sleeves are extended past the hands to obstruct the wearer’s ability to move and operate, so as to represent the struggle of trying to reenter society and the workforce after serving time,” Powell said in an interview with Jopwell.
5. Move over, Betsy Ross
For the last piece in her collection, Powell composed a textile sample that was a loose rendition of the American flag.
“I had so many of my friends help me to hand-embroider the red detailing on the dress,” she says. “My grandma, my aunt, my mom, one of my models, another one of my friends — so many people helped me on that, and I think it was … maybe symbolic of the support system that black women need in order to overcome … discrimination in our society.”
The response to ROOTS has been overwhelmingly positive, a victory for Powell and intersectionality.
After graduation, Powell knows she’ll need to balance passion projects like ROOTS and her professional goals, at least for now. Ultimately, she hopes to start her own company where she can combine the two and make a living doing what she loves.
“The attention I’ve been receiving from the collection has pushed me to be, like, ‘This is definitely realistic. I can do this now,'” Powell says.
Indeed, she can. She has generations of persistent, capable, talented black women beside her — lifting her up, pushing her, and encouraging her.
It’s in telling their stories that Powell crafts her own.