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EXCLUSIVE: Shelby Ivey Christie Is Here to Remind Us That Black Fashion History Is American History

The fashion and costume historian is shining a light on fashion’s hidden figures.

Thanks to the digital age and the advent of social media, fashion's old guard is evolving and shifting—sometimes forcibly and after many years of hard-learned lessons. New authorities are emerging in the space, using their platforms and voices to uplift talent from past, present, and future. Without their endorsement, they would continue to be overlooked and perhaps altogether forgotten, despite their immense contributions to style. Shelby Ivey Christie is one such arbiter, using her convergent expertise in culture, fashion, and costume studies to exalt Black fashion history to the level it deserves. Twitter and Instagram are her mediums of choice, where she's amassed about 77K followers collectively, along with garnering accolades from the likes of Forbes, who placed her on their 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 List.

"I always intended to center Blackness in my career," Christie tells BET.com by phone. "I went to an HBCU—North Carolina A&T—so having Blackness centered in my education absolutely influenced what I wanted to do after graduation. My Bachelor's degree is in Race, Class, and Culture, so I originally thought I was going to be a history teacher and that I'd go on to get my Master's in African-American Studies. That's how I saw my path going, but after my freshman year at A&T, I ended up dropping out as part of the Fashion Merchandising major."

(Photo courtesy of Shelby Ivey Christie)

This was a difficult obstacle to surmount for Christie, as she was always the fashion-obsessed child in her household—wearing eccentric outfits and garnering the title of "Best Dressed" throughout her various years in school. So studying fashion still felt fated for her, but she had to figure out how to make it intersect with her other passions so that she could sustain her passion long-term. "I still had a love for history, and as a freshman, I was required to take some Black history courses, as well as a course on history of the HBCU," Christie says. "In those courses, we went deep on Black inventors and all the things Black people had contributed to society, and I had this overwhelming feeling that history was what I wanted to study. So I switched my major, and the rest really was history because years down the line that manifested in pitching multicultural ideas to the Sales team at Vogue so we could approach more Black designers and elevate more Black brands. My loves were always there, but I had to essentially create the position I'm in now to converge the two."

One of Christie's main aims is to make history youthful, fun, and intersectional—eschewing the age-old idea that it's a stuffy and snobby subject. "I want what I share to be accessible and engaging," she says. "As someone who is in a Master's Program at NYU for Costume Studies, a lot of the academic subject matter can be really boring to read. The language and vocabulary used can also be quite difficult: even for those of us in the program. But I always think about people who don't work in fashion and don't have as much access but deserve to have access to this history—especially in my demographic of young Black people." So Christie's trademark y'alls (she's a Southern woman, please don't forget) and communicating through of-the-moment mediums like memes are the ways she invites everyone inside her knowledge base, so they can understand that fashion is important and about so much more than just clothes.

(Photo courtesy of Shelby Ivey Christie)

So Christie loves February: a month full of both Black history and fashion. "Black History Month is such an important month—not only from a cultural standpoint but from an information-sharing and educational standpoint as well," she says. "People constantly interact with the Black HIstory content I share on my platform, and their comments are always, 'Wow, I didn't know that.' Even though we have this holiday, there's so much of our history that isn't known, so it's great to have resources and funnel out that information." Christie doesn't mind the commercial aspect that brands have added to the month throughout the years and she specifically enjoys dialing down her content to be diasporic-specific and regional during this month. "I want to talk about L.A. girl style and what trends are coming out of Houston," she says. "I'm from the South, so I want to make sure where I'm from is included. It's a great month for us to reflect and focus on celebrating our contributions."

It's been a super reflective last couple of weeks for Christie in the wake of the passing of one of her inspirations, André Leon Talley. "For me, André Leon Talley was a huge influence and an aspirational figure," she says. "He was from North Carolina like me, and he went to an HBCU in North Carolina like I did, and he worked at Vogue like I did. Being a Black Southerner, we oftentimes both are and feel very removed from the fashion industry because New York and L.A. are the hubs. For so many of us, we saw ourselves in André and when he talked about the women who inspired him, he was talking about Black Southern women."

Talley represented the possibility that creativity was lucrative and professional, especially for Black creatives. "Just a generation or two before us, Black people were preached to about having a respectable profession which was out of self-preservation," Christie says. "Your parents wanted you to get a good, stable job so you could support yourself because they knew what you were up against. But that didn't leave a lot of room in conversations for creative roles. So Andre showed us that we could be professionals in a creative field and be impactful." Christie comes from a family full of people who work in banks, engineering, and tech, so Talley provided the blueprint for her when she couldn't immediately look around to people she knew for guidance.

The chronicler hopes that she can be a beacon of possibilities for others, and she quickly names a slew of her peers that she feels are really shifting the industry's paradigm. Those she smoothly shouts out are Wanna Thompson and her story on the hood girl aesthetic; costume designer and stylist Shiona Turini for her incredible work on Insecure and Queen & Slim; friend Amanda Murray who has the best fashion stories; Melissa Holdbrook-Akposoe of Melissa's Wardrobe who creates great luxury content and gives us a glimpse into Black British style; Anifa Mvuemba who is building a fashion house with Hanifa; and Peter Do who has an amazing eye for detail and structure. In case you're in need of some immediate inspiration.

(Photo courtesy of Shelby Ivey Christie)

And like so many of the aforementioned, Christie is not only a force in her work but how she approaches her personal style—using her clothes and accessories as an additional platform to elevate the talent of smaller Black brands. “It took me a long time to establish my personal style, and I’m still changing and evolving,” she says. “Your style is how you express yourself, and you have to know yourself really well to make it truly authentic. Turning 30 has helped me usher in a whole new phase, and I feel like I really know who I am now. I like feminine, but there has to be a roughness to it—I’m never going to be a frilly, pink kind of doll.”

Christie always starts with her bottoms, then works her way up to her top, finally adding on accessories—especially earrings, as those are her signatures. “I love heavy, statement pieces because I wear a lot of black, white, and neutrals,” she says. “I like for my jewelry to pack a punch. I also love to play with my hair, and I am a girl who gives you full glam.” That means long acrylic nails, long lashes, and hair always on point. She describes her style as “edgy and structured, but sometimes deconstructed,” and she is always on the hunt for classics with a twist.

Ultimately, Christie wants Black fashion history to be taught within the regular American history curriculum. “If it’s a Black designer or Black fashion topic, why aren’t these things coming up in American History?” she says. “Fashion is just an output of race, class, and culture, along with our financial systems and the supply chain. These are the same systems you’ll see in your economics class and your science class.” She believes that learning will be a game-changer in high schools, as well as at HBCUs. That, along with more Black historical resources and exhibitions, could really move the needle in getting the Black community informed about our fashion contributions, along with society at large. Her eventual hope is to curate a Black-themed Met Costume Institute exhibition—not as outside validation for our achievements, but as the big, celebratory moment our accomplishments deserve. And with project partners that have already included Netflix, Google, and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum, we’d say that Christie is well on her way. 

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