Why “Formation” is Necessary for a White Audience – A Dress Historian’s Perspective

In a typical Queen Bey move reminiscent of the unannounced video drops of the album “Beyonce” and the “7/11” EP, Beyonce released a new video entitled “Formation” on February 6th. Naturally, as a huge Beyonce fan all of my social media platforms began disseminating first responses to the new song and I felt compelled to stop everything I was doing and watch the video for myself.

Since its release and Beyonce’s surprise performance of the new song at Super Bowl 50 in a costume alluding to Michael Jackson and surrounded by dancers clothed in costumes reminiscent of the Black Panthers, “Formation” has been the subject of numerous articles deconstructing and analyzing its various scenes, lyrics, and messages. Of these, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff’s Dazed article entitled Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ is a Defiant Reclamation of Blackness seemed particularly potent in its explanation of the past, current, hopefully future identities Beyonce’s video attempts to reclaim for African Americans.

What seemed important for me to highlight in the context of this blog, my academic research, and of course within the parameters of this MA course on the history of dress, is how Beyonce performs identity for a specific audience. Naturally her allusion to her “Givenchy dress” appropriates certain forms of elite white culture, evoking both the history of the eponymous label and its resurgence as a major arbiter of taste under Tisci’s direction. So much has already been written on how she performs identity – from hairstyles to ensembles to the backdrops – but I think that her intended audience is of particular importance.

Givenchy Dress in Beyoncé's formation video. Source: Video screenshot.
Givenchy Dress in Beyoncé’s formation video. Source: Video screenshot.

In many ways, I view that intended audience to be twofold. Most importantly, the video’s glorification of a variety of black bodies as beautiful, its rejection of “whiten-ing” beauty standards, and overall positive body image demonstrates to a black audience that the black body in all of its manifestations is just as worthy of characterization as beautiful as its white counterpart and therefore is inherently valuable. In other words, BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Blue Ivy, Beyoncé's daughter, with natural hair.
Blue Ivy, Beyoncé’s daughter, with natural hair.

Secondly, the video clearly seems to be a defiant reclamation of black identity geared at disrupting white constructions of blackness and instead offering to a white audience a series of identities created and portrayed by “real” black women. I think this is absolutely necessary in the contemporary moment for white audiences to be confronted through the very mainstream media that propagates, perpetuates, and promotes white standards of beauty and identity, with the fact that racism not only still exists but is actually prevalent and institutionalized. The limited diversity we usually see on these platforms is often tokenized, distorted, and manipulated to produce sensationalized stories.

Beyoncé in the Camino wearing a fur coat typically associated with African American rappers. Source: Video Screenshot.
Beyoncé in the Camino wearing a fur coat typically associated with African American rappers. Source: Video Screenshot.

Beyonce’s push towards the reclamation of blackness, visual appropriation of elements of black history (in particular southern identity through allusions via scenery and dress to the history of southern slavery), and even her re-employment of “Negro,” all disrupt the normative narrative of blackness in ways necessary for a white audience. Blackness is successful, popular, and enviable. Blackness should not be defined by white preconceived notions.

In the 21st century, my hope is that movements like Black Lives Matter, the Smith’s boycotting of the Oscars, and even Beyonce’s “Formation” help to create a world where a young black girl “just might be a black Bill Gates in the making!” Instead of inhibiting the progress of our country by systematically oppressing a part of our citizenry through police violence, a lack of access to quality education, and narratives of history, identity, and progress derived from the monolithic ideology of the white establishment, it is time for the privileged to support our African American sisters and brothers and assist them in the creation of a equitable society.