To answer these questions (and raise others I cannot answer), this article analyzes Cleaver’s pants through the context of US black history (Spencer; Blain) as well as a nod to Foucauldian theories of power relations applied to raced and gendered bodies.2 Through this article I hope to contribute to a discussion in fashion studies about the materiality of bodies and the role of self-fashioning, particularly for those living in resistance to dominant codes of gender and race.
One aspect of contributing to such a discussion is providing readers with some context to my writing this article. This interjection goes against established tenets of academic writing but I choose to challenge those tenets in order to address the politics of scholarly research and writing. As a white, queer, transgender man, and a tenured academic, my subject position begs examination in relation to the contents of this essay. Why am I writing about a black revolutionary’s least known and, when known, frequently mocked efforts in clothing design? My privilege empowers me to spend time thinking about this topic and to obtain research funding to look through Cleaver’s private archives held in a university far from my home; my privilege also allows me to feel entitled to step into, examine, and write about a black man’s life and work. Given that privilege, I am ethically bound to do my best not to harm through my words and actions a man, and others like him, who suffered violence, police scrutiny, incarceration, and impoverishment by the white supremacy from which I, and others like me, have benefited. This acknowledgment serves neither to excuse me nor any other scholar from responsibility, nor to preempt criticism. This acknowledgment serves to put me, and you my readers, on notice that my acts of research and writing may have done harm. I call on myself, and you, my readers, to hold me accountable.
My interest in Eldridge Cleaver’s pants design was first piqued in graduate school, when I heard fellow students of American history discuss something about a design called “the Cleaver sleeve.” I heard it was some sort of codpiece designed to enhance Cleaver’s penis and thus his masculinity. At that time, I was trying to name and live my own gender and sexual identity. I understood myself as a gay man but I lived in a body designated “female”; I expressed my queer masculinity as a “boyish” lesbian (neither then nor now am I butch enough for “butch”). I never saw an image or read a description of this “Cleaver sleeve,” as then I could not “Google image” myself into that curiosity. The relationship between clothing and gender presented a site of struggle for me as well as other queers: I searched then, as I still do now, in boys and menswear sections of retail stores for clothes to dress (and represent publicly) my embodied self. I joked back then about opening a clothing store that would solve such problems, and I planned to call it “Victor’s Secret.”
I returned to Eldridge Cleaver’s pants design last year, now able to actually see images of what he had made thanks to the treasure trove of evidence existing online. After having transitioned, I am perhaps even more interested in how other people dress their crotches in particular — dressing the body parts they wish to emphasize, or hide, or disguise; dressing the genitals that they wish were or were not there; dressing to “pass” or dressing to differ. My dressed body appears male; my undressed body appears trans — edited and enhanced according to my choices by surgery and by hormone therapy. My body is re-dressed — I have provided redress to my body myself from the harm done by a rigid binary of “male” and “female”; and I continue to dress and re-dress my body through explorations of gender expression. Clothing my body as redress facilitates a conversation with myself, and others I invite, about the cut, colour, texture, movement, and associated meanings of the clothing I choose or desire.
I love Eldridge Cleaver’s pants. I’d wear them. I love their audacity. I love their absurd over-expression of embodied masculinity — in those pants his penis was dressed yet also almost undressed. He exposed his racialized masculinity according to his choice and design. But I am also a little afraid of what Cleaver meant by this design, by this redressing of his racialized masculinity. Cleaver’s violence towards his partner Kathleen Cleaver remains a persistent rumour; Cleaver’s history of sexual assault is undeniable; his homophobia and misogyny stand out clearly; Cleaver’s association with anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum is documented in his own archives.