Professor Tanisha C. Ford on Dressed in Dreams, Her Memoir of a Life in Fashion, and Its Pending Adaptation for the Screen
Ford discusses her acclaimed book, her writing process, new projects, and why she joined The Graduate Center.
Professor Tanisha C. Ford (History) is the author of the recent book Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion, a memoir that Gabrielle Union and Freida Pinto plan to develop into a Sony Pictures TV series, according to an announcement in Variety. The memoir tells the story of Ford’s life through chapters that focus on iconic garments and styles, ranging from dashikis and ’90s baggy jeans to hot pants and knee-high boots.
Ford, a culture critic who has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Root, Elle, and Aperture, also delves into issues of cultural appropriation and police violence in chapters that focus on bamboo earrings and hoodies. She recently spoke about her writing process, new projects, and why she joined The Graduate Center:
The Graduate Center: You’ve written extensively about fashion from the point of view of a researcher. How was it to treat yourself as a subject?
Ford: It was unexpected. When I originally conceived the book I thought there would be bits and pieces of my life, but I didn’t think that my life would make up the bulk of the book. But the more I started to draft pages, and told minor bits of my story, the editor was like, ‘I really like these stories. There should be more of you.’
I went from researcher to subject, and I found that while it was odd at first, once I really gave myself over to the genre of memoir, the story just kind of came spilling out. I had more stories to tell than I thought, and my story overlaps so much with the histories that I read about: the social movements of the late 20th century; race, class, and gender politics; politics of the Midwest. I had always been living the thing that I studied, and this was a beautiful way to marry the personal with the more historical research.
GC: Your mother is a fascinating presence in the book. Was it difficult to write about people in your own family, who might read the book themselves?
Ford: My mom wasn’t hard to write about; she knew I was writing about her. Part of the research process was me having conversations with her, recording those conversations, remembering the stories and memories from all of our vantage points. She knew that was a huge part of it, and I think that goes to the sense of trust that both she and my father have in me — they allowed me to take those memories and craft them into a narrative about them, about us.
Once the book got closer to publication, I sat down and I read some of the passages to my mom, some of the more challenging, difficult passages. And I cried as I read them to her. So that was also a very beautiful bonding moment between the two of us.
GC: I was wondering about your research. You really took me back to Wilsons Leather, which I remember from my own mall experiences in the ’80s. Did you have to do any research on the ground to bring back any of these memories?
Ford: Part of it was looking at old family photos, and studying those photos very closely to glean certain details from them. Other things did involve me going to places, like Wilsons Leather — I even bought a leather jacket, a black leather jacket, just to re-experience the purchase of something from Wilson’s and to feel what it was like to be in the store. In some cases, I returned to different places to see the sights again. I wanted to get to Myrtle Beach. That would have been a fun little road trip.
I also was deeply reading Mary Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir, and that was helpful for me, too, in order to think about how we recreate the sensorial as we write. So part of it was technique, like how can I layer these different types of memories and knowledge that I have of past life experience. We get a more complete story when we layer various things on top of one another.
GC: Could you talk about your latest project: The Glamorous Life: Socialite-Activists and the Black Freedom Struggle from World War II to the Age of Obama?
Ford: That’s a book on the history of Black women fundraisers. I’m really invested in following the money, and that research has been fascinating and continues to dazzle me every time I find some new document in the archives on these women and the money that they raised. I’m looking forward piecing that together into a book.
I’m also trying to put together a project now that has a global component to it. Part of the main thrust is telling Black migration stories. I’m thinking about how and why Black folks move from various parts of the U.S. South to places like New York City, places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I’m from. That is more of an oral history project.
GC: You started at The Graduate Center just this year, coming from the departments of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware and previously the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. What made you decide to join The Graduate Center?
Ford: I was really excited to join a community invested in public education. I love the idea of working with and partnering with graduate students to enhance their professional development and to help them find interesting and innovative ways to answer the questions that they find intriguing. And I love New York City. I’ve been living here now for the past five or six years, and it feels good to finally live and work in the same place.