ach week we present an influential woman whose career and style has inspired the team at Silkarmour to aim high and dress better. This week’s Silkarmour woman is Maya Angelou, author, poet and civil rights activist.
A woman who contributes to American history and its cultural landscape on such a grand scale as Angelou's does not do so by following the rules or keeping her mouth shut. Originally a dance and drama student at San Francisco’s Labor School, Angelou’s career was peppered with many ‘firsts’ as a black American and a woman, having dropped out to become San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor, long before becoming the first woman to speak at a presidential inauguration and the first black American to direct a major motion picture. True to her nature in her later years, Angelou made no exception in making her voice heard on any scale. As a consultant for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC in 2011, Angelou demanded the paraphrase of a quote be removed as it “makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit” and freely encouraged young women to “grab life by the lapels” as “life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Many of the harrowing details of Angelou’s early life would later be recalled in her autobiographies and novels, which she credited as an outlet for her experiences, stating “there is no greater agony that bearing an untold story inside of you”.
Of the six autobiographies Angelou wrote, her landmark novel I Know Why the Cadged Bird Sings actually came to fruition through a dare and “a little reverse psychology”. Challenged by author James Baldwin and her editor, Robert Loomis, Angelou’s task was to write an autobiography that could simultaneously be recognised as a piece of fiction. Nominated for a National Book Award merely a year after its publication, Cadged Bird is now one of the most famous and critically acclaimed novels of the 20th Century, still retaining its relevance today. Crediting the continuity of her writing ritual throughout her career, Angelou always stated how the success of her writing was thanks to her accurate recollection of her life. “It may take an hour to get into it” she said “but once I’m in it, ha! It’s so delicious.” Detailing the “agony, the anguish” of her past, Angelou would produce 10-12 pages of material in a day aided by a bottle of sherry and a packet of cards, in an isolated hotel room. It was this routine that that would earn Angelou’s post-Cadged Bird work over 50 honorary degrees and 57 awards, including a stamp issued by the US Postal service and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2010.
What is not often recollected however, is how Angelou stood as a beacon of style for younger women, preaching that “you will always be in fashion if you are true to yourself.” Known for her gold jewellery, colour scarfs and headdresses in a society where her cultural heritage was considered offensive, Angelou’s outfits were the product of unconscious thought - the effortless style all working women strive for. It didn’t go unnoticed, as she posed for a Cole Haan autumn/winter 2013 campaign, titled ‘Born in 1928’ and was later photographed for Vogue that same year. Wearing custom-made leopard-print kitten heels for her Cole Haan campaign, Haan spoke of Angelou as an example of how “timelessness and true style are born out of confidence – and that never expires.”
To top it off, Angelou never feared aging. Raised in a culture where youth was – and is still - paramount, Angelou spoke of aging as a thrill in her interview with Vogue. Having discussed it with Oprah, “I told her it’s fabulous at sixty…you want to be sixty. You want to be smart and clever and intelligent and witty and kind and generous and sure of yourself.” She revelled in the joy of not worrying about getting pregnant and being “better at what you do. More brave”. Ageing, according to Angelou was “wonderful”. Coming from woman who linked the concept of maturity to credit card payments and the nuclear family structure, the freedom she found in ageing was one of many sensational legacies she left behind.
Career Golden Nuggets
- Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it
- Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option
- No matter what happens, how bad it seems today, life does go on and it will be better tomorrow
- We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty
- Nothing will work unless you do