We all owe Don Cornelius a lot. In a world where “American Bandstand” dominated teen viewership on television, Cornelius thought that black viewers deserved to see more of themselves while listening to their music. And thus, Soul Train was born. But when audiences were watching the Soul Train dancers for the next trend in fashion, true trendspotters knew to also watch Don Cornelius. And honestly, when watching Soul Train starting in 1971 through 1993 when he stopped hosting, has he ever looked like anything other than sharp? The answer to that question is no.
Don Cornelius started a lot of trends just by introducing the main attractions that hit the stage every week. He made wearing glasses look smart, cool and dapper. The three-piece suit had a classic flair instead of the stereotypical pimp perspective, and his shoes were simply baaaaaaaad. So where did it come from?
What is probably most important is that before Cornelius–and even thereafter, Blaxploitation was at its height of popularity. The genre of films showed blacks dressed just as sharp as Cornelius in three piece suits and feathers portrayed as pimps, liars, and seldom heroes. The idea of a black man in a three-piece suit stigmatized them as being involved in something negative. But with Cornelius, people could tune in to see this positive representation as a host–who was previously a celebrated journalist and producer.
Because he had such a slim frame, wearing multiple colors worked. His ties were funky and tied at a wide angle. And he believed in grooming–his Afro was always even on both sides. The host is always the face of the show, so it wouldn’t be farfetched to suggest that since Soul Train was so important to black music, so was Don Cornelius’ style.
It is easy to admire the man’s style because the he believed in mixing unconventional patterns to create a look that always worked. Satin, silk, velour, velvet–nothing was off-limits. And for that, he was certainly ahead of his time. Before Steve Harvey and his suits, Bobby Jones, and Arseneno Hall, Don Cornelius was the original suit man. For every outfit we deserves a standing ovation because he wore them well.
– James R. Sanders
* * * *
James R. Sanders regularly contributes to the Huffington Post and is the biweekly columnist for Black Star News’ Noir Style. He most recently completed his novel, “Born in Sin” and is a stylist and editor based in the New York area. He can be reached at: email@example.com.