By: Laura Spears
“I used to take a seat on top of the gatepost and watch the world go by. One-way to Orlando ran past my house, so the carriages and cars would pass before me. The movement made me glad to see it. Often, the white travelers would hail me, but more often, I hailed them and asked, ‘Don’t you want me to go a piece of the way with you?’
She would travel a little of the way with her new acquaintance, either telling them stories or asking them questions about themselves, then she would trot back down the road to her family’s home in Eatonville, Florida.
Traveling and story telling became Zora’s livelihood from the time she left Florida as a teenager in 1914. She spent the rest of her life on the road, collecting stories and research that she would use in her plays, essays and novels. As an educated African American woman she helped debunk racist theories and share that evidence with audience through theatre. She is most remembered for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Zora attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. From Howard, Zora went to New York, to study at Columbia College with the noted anthropologist, Franz Boas. Before Boaz, the study of anthropology was based mostly on anecdotal evidence instead of observable facts. Like all of his students, Boaz expected Zora to be meticulous in her research. One of her first field research tasks was to measure the skulls of her African American neighbors in Harlem. Armed with a set of calipers she carried in her purse, she set out to disprove the anthropological theory that blacks had smaller brains than whites.
As an anthropologist, Zora went on several tours of the southern United States collecting the folklore and songs of African American communities. She stayed in labor camps in Florida and collected the stories of lumber workers and railroad crews. She went to New Orleans and the Bahamas and studied hoodoo.
It was not easy to be a black woman traveling alone through the southern states in the 1920’s and 30’s. The Ku Klux Klan had seen an increase in numbers, and Zora often had to drive through their territory alone. Segregation laws meant that sometimes she could not find a restaurant or a hotel on the road that would accept black customers. Zora traveled with a pistol, and often had to sleep in her car.
While in the field, Zora soon learned that her style of dress was important. On her first excursion to a railroad camp, Zora had a hard time getting the people to open up to her and share their folklore. She soon discovered that her attire was the problem. The inhabitants of the poor community did not trust this woman in a neat department store dress with her own car. Assuming that she worked for the police or the federal government, the camp inhabitants were guarded in her presence. Zora explained her nice clothes and car away with a story that she was a bootlegger.
Through this experience Zora learned the importance of costume in gaining the trust of her subjects. On her subsequent trips, Zora would dress in overalls, work shirts, no make-up, and tie her hair back in a bandana. While in the city, Zora was known for her unique attire. “In uptown Manhattan, one puts on one’s best clothes and fares forth to pass the time pleasantly with friends and acquaintances, and most important of all, the strangers he is sure of meeting.” Zora would pair dramatic accessories, such as big necklaces, scarves, and hats, with her wardrobe basics to vary her outfits. She was especially fond of hats.
This grey hat was designed for 1932, when Zora was living in New York and working on her new play, The Great Day, which dramatized the life in one of the many railroad camps she visited. Zora wove the community’s works songs, their children’s games, their dances, and even a Sunday worship service and sermon into the text of the play. She acted as writer, director, and choreographer for the production.
In the 1930’s, the movie industry had a big influence on the fashionable styles. Accessories and hats took on a more fantastical look. Department stores created new lines of clothing based on copies of Hollywood costume designer’s creations. Hats that perched on the head and exposed the face replaced the silhouettes of the 1920’s that covered much of the head. For this reason I chose a halo hat for Zora. The halo hat was worn well back on the head. The large round brim framed the wearer’s head, much like a halo in religious painting. I chose a soft grey felt hood for this hat, since neutral tones were fashionable in the 1930’s. A neutral colored hat would be appealing to Zora’s limited budget, since she could pair it with many outfits. The hat is decorated with a bold black band and bow in keeping with Zora’s bold aesthetic.