Virginia Woolf pinned it to “on or about” December 1910: the date at which human nature changed. “All human relations have shifted,” she wrote. “And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” With less hyperbole, we might suggest that it was in the late 1950s that Black America transformed – not just with the civil rights movement, but across the whole spectrum of creativity and conduct. Aspects of this revolution have been well documented: the Birth of the Cool in jazz; the writers Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright. But some of the most quotidian parts have gone underexamined. Such as clothes.

Look at photos of Black American men in the 1950s and 1960s and what stands out is a coherence and growing confidence in their appearance. Here is the saxophonist John Coltrane in a soft-shouldered jacket and knitted tie, while over here is the writer Amiri Baraka in a button-down shirt and a shawl-collar cardigan. The look is smart, yet relaxed – no heavily padded suits or repp striped ties here. As the varsity jackets and penny loafers suggest, it is a style inspired by privileged white students at Ivy League colleges. You might even say it has been appropriated – and then bettered. The colour palette widens, the finishing touches are bolder: tie clips, collar pins, capped brogues. Later, this look will become known as Black Ivy.

This insurgency is documented and celebrated in a new book called Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style. In his introduction, Jason Jules describes the look as “a kind of battledress, a symbolic armour worn in the nonviolent pursuit of fundamental change. Making society treat them differently meant making the mainstream see them differently first.” Think of the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in a button-down shirt playing Freedom Suite, or Billy Taylor in a tweed jacket composing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The goal wasn’t merely to join the elite, it was to redefine it.

However subtly done, the style was a challenge to authority. Dressing like a university student wasn’t an affectation, but a crucial part of the struggles around desegregating America’s education system. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the political mood changed – and so did street style. Stokely Carmichael went from working alongside John Lewis in sports jackets and ties to leading the Black Panthers in dark glasses and a black leather jacket, clutching a rifle.

Miles Davis onstage c1959.
Miles Davis performing circa 1959. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While the term “gesture politics” is always intended as an insult, we are right now rewriting what counts as a political gesture: just consider the rows both here and in the US over the taking of the knee. Historians have long argued that enslaved people and indentured labourers showed resistance by dragging their feet or feigning incomprehension of barked orders. Something similar needs to happen with fashion, which is too often discussed as either catwalk creations or what’s in the January sales. Yet it can also be about expressing one’s self-image and beliefs. Black Ivy was about young Black Americans changing how they saw themselves – starting with the mirror by the wardrobe.