The ‘Sunday Best’ Sartorial Tradition: An Explainer
During the height of slavery in America, Sunday worship and two sets of clothes were often the only freedoms enslaved communities were afforded. One of these sets of clothes was reserved exclusively for church. And while many treated their mode of dress as a sign of reverence towards God, for others it became a moment to present themselves in their best attire and show their glory in grand style. This was how the term ‘Sunday Best’ was coined. It is a tradition that has been passed through generations within the Black community across the world and still influences creatives today.
“[Church] was a saving grace for the Black community [at a time when they] had nothing to look forward to,” shares Karen Binns, a creative director and stylist from New York. But the ethos of presenting your best self on a Sunday was a concept that went beyond Black America. For Dr Christine Checinska, curator of the V&A Africa Fashion exhibition, who is British of African-Caribbean heritage, “Sunday Best was a part of weekly life growing up – clothes had to be laundered and ironed, shoes had to be polished, hair had to be neatly ‘done’.”
Omoyemi Akerele, founder and CEO of Lagos Fashion Week and Style House Files tells of a similar experience and explains that in Nigeria, this Sunday ritual went beyond class or economic power. “People lived their lives with intention and a natural extension of that is to express themselves through what they wear. They put their best foot forward – no matter what their income bracket is.”
Today, a concept that stemmed from a traumatic history, a way to proclaim Black worth and combat the stereotype of Black people being unkempt, has become a source of inspiration and celebration for many creatives. The designer Christopher John Rogers used his SS19 collection to pay homage to the extravagant church ensembles he witnessed during his childhood in Louisiana, US. In her collection (Always) Wear Your Best On A Sunday, South African photographer Alice Mann examines the relationship between fashion and worship in the Black diaspora. London-based photographer Katie Waggett also captures the cultural codes of dress and religion in her book Sunday Best. And Aida Amoako’s As We See It – a book that explores the concept of the Black gaze across photography and art – prominently features Dario Calmese’s images of Lana Turner, a Harlem socialite and prominent member of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church.
For the Black community however, Sunday Best is no longer limited to church. Rather, says Akerele, “Sunday Best has become a way of life.”
Yelena Grelet is a London-based freelance journalist