Monday of this week was Martin Luther King Day, a holiday filled with both pragmatic and intangible significance. Dr. King is without a doubt one of the most revered figures in modern American history. More than most public figures of the 20th Century, King is so intertwined with the times in which he lived that he has transcended his own personality. He has become a legend, but a very human one.
I chose Dr. King as an icon of classic style because more than anyone else I admire, the way in which he chose to present himself every day quite literally changed the world. When I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., I see a man who possessed incredible inner strength and a drive to make a tangible mark on the world. I see a man who forced others to see who he really was by sheer force of personality. And when I think of how he looked – I see him in a suit.
It was usually a simple but elegant suit; dark, sober and professional. It was a Sunday suit; fitting of course as he was a preacher. But it was also his armor during a time in my country’s history when bigotry was literally the law. Black citizens had little protection or recourse and even the most heinous act of murder was seen in a different legal light. The presumption was usually that the victim deserved it and all white juries usually concurred.
I bring up these rather depressing images because it is important to put King in the right context. As with his contemporary, Bobby Kennedy, King has become a somewhat remote and perfected image. But the dangers faced by Dr. King and those around him were very real and very personal. Every day he had to get up and accept that his work could – and probably would – lead to his death.
In addition to his landmark non-violent protests, King led another type of war. It was the war of perception. Dr. King presented black America in a way that tore down the flimsy veil of prejudice. Step by step his actions reshaped the image of what made someone an American and a human.
King understood the role of media and of perception. He made a point to always be well turned out, eloquent, knowledgeable and gentlemanly. He was daily fighting the ignorant and small-minded stereotypes that unfortunately persist to this day. By presenting a glaring counter argument in the form of an accomplished and elegant African American leader, King opened a new front in the war for equality.
By being perpetually well dressed King’s image, as well as his words, presented an unassailable message of strength, confidence, leadership and intelligence.
He was not the first in civil rights leader to harness the power of dress. Malcolm X, a fellow civil rights activist and leading figure in the Nation of Islam, lead legions of followers impeccably turned out in suits and bow ties.
While clothing does not in and of itself change the world, part of Dr. King’s legacy will always be the image of a polished leader and brilliant orator. King’s choice of clothing extended his reach and defined a leader.