When the coronavirus shutdown first hit in March 2020, my daughter watched a Black classic movie for the first time: “The Wiz.” It became an instant classic for her as she mimicked the Emerald City Sequence.
In that scene — under a bed of funky flutes and horns composed by Quincy Jones — Black models promenade at the site of the World Trade Center draped in designs by Halston, Stephen Burrows and Oscar de la Renta. They are graceful, high-fashion and chic. With pyramids in the background, the African symbolism matches the colors that change from green to red to gold. Green represents the land. Red the blood. Gold the natural resources.
On one of those cooped-up, boring pandemic nights, my 4-year-old asked the family to perform a mock fashion show down our long apartment hallway to recreate Emerald City. We sashayed to the best of our abilities.
The 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz, a Black-centered liberation and jubilation version of The Wizard of Oz, is the inspiration for a new, glamorous fashion exhibition at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
“The Color Is” by Nick and Jack Cave in the roundhouse across the street from the museum borrows from the Emerald City Sequence. The garments drape dozens of faceless mannequins in a circle dressed in blues, oranges, pinks, blacks and greens. Museumgoers walk a circle like in the movie. You can’t help but strut as the music hums in the background.
The show is in conjunction with Nick Cave’s 30-year retrospective “Forothermore” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A celebrated artist who has made his home in Chicago for decades, Cave’s work crosses disciplines from fashion to performance. Brother Jack Cave, also based in Chicago, is a designer and creative director. They combine their fashion sensibilities into a rich, culturally relevant show.
Curator Danny Dunson said “The Color Is” acts as a call-and-response, North Side museum to South Side museum.
“It’s the cyclical response, the circle of walking around in a promenade,” Dunson said. “There’s this phrase: Will the circle be unbroken? And we’re saying it will not be broken. It is a continuum of past, present, future within the Black futurist and African identity way of thinking of time. It’s not a linear line. It is a continual circle. So we’re thinking about that circle in the roundhouse with ‘The Color Is’ as you encounter these amazing handcrafted, brightly-colored, extremely and exquisitely layered fashion objects.”
One fabric is cerulean blue in a metallic fabric that highlights wrinkles and creases. It’s shiny with large discs of hand-sewn sequins.
There’s monochromatic black, intricate buttons, textures like pop can tops, lots of embellished sequins and small beads on tunics like the ones that show up in little Black girls’ hair. The pieces emote pizzazz, fantasy and whimsy. And couture looks that would easily fit in at an Ikram or Barney’s window display, although the Cave brothers’ works aren’t for sale.
“It’s really important to bring out between both Nick and Jack is that these are nonbinary, genderless ensembles. They’re on different female or male forms. But they can wear anything from a skirt or to a pair of pants, and it doesn’t matter what sex they’re born with,” Dunson said.
Nick and Jack, just a year apart, grew up in Missouri, into a family of sewers, carpenters, builders and crafters. Their grandfather built his house and the boys’ house. Aesthetic inspirations from those homes, such as bright ceramics, bold upholstery furniture, dolls and other domestic objects, seep into the fashion and overall art practices.
In the accompanying exhibit catalog, Nick Cave writes that he approached this collection the same way he does his art practice. “I make things, objects — then I put them together. I am not designing a look as much as bringing unusual objects together and being open to what that may look like.”
“At the end of ‘The Wiz,’ Glinda the Good Witch says, home is knowing your heart, knowing your mind. And I think that’s what we have kind of created in this space — a sense of home, a safe space where you can really reflect on yourself and learn yourself through the modalities of these artists.”A pair of bedazzled shoes in “The Color Is” could be worn on the good witch Glinda or evil witch Eveline.
And prance as if easing down an invisible yellow brick road.
If you go: “The Color Is” closes Nov. 27. The DuSable Museum of African American History is at 740 E. 56th Place.