The black dandy

1 Mar

During February, we looked at black America during the rock and roll period, focusing on music and style. We watched black expression and black identity blossom, echoing the civil rights movement as black people demanded more rights, freedom, and respect. This post is a follow-up to the Black History month series that will discuss black dandyism.

A dandy is a man who places particular importance upon his physical appearance, showy clothing, refined language, and leisurely hobbies. It is a term that originated in Britain during the late 18th century (think Beau Brummell) and carried on into the 19th (Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron are famous dandies of the period).

French poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) defined the dandy as one who elevates aesthetics to a living religion, and “contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” (source)

In another age, philosopher, Albert Camus (1913-1960), had his own opinion about dandies, saying, “The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an aesthetic of negation. “To live and die before a mirror”: that according to Baudelaire, was the dandy’s slogan. It is indeed a coherent slogan. The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance.”

Between these two, dandyism comes across as snobbery and aesthetic spite. But does dandyism still exist, and if it does, what does it look like?

Dandy lions

There is a movement among some urban African-American men who embrace 18th century dandyism and mix it with their African roots. These “dandy lions” express a modern version of black dandyism.

Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator for the photography and film exhibit, “Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity,” explains to The Root DC, the African-American blog on the Washington Post site, that a “dandy lion” is “a new statement on black masculinity within a contemporary context. He is a man of elegance, an individual who remixes a Victorian era fashion and aesthetic with traditional African sensibilities and swagger.” Have a look at some examples of dandy lions here to get a sense of their wonderful styles here.

Ms Lewis says that the universal image of a black male is negative and not reaffirming, and there needs to be more expressions of black masculinity available.

You don’t have to be thug or an athlete or dress like everyone else with the sagging pants, exposed boxers and oversized white tees to be a man. Express creativity and individuality. That’s what dandy lions seek to express, especially to a young generation that’s also paying tribute to the older generation.

It’s interesting that this dandy movement, now over 200 years old, has changed with the times and been embraced by new generations of people. Its current resurgence comes at a time when world economies are sluggish and the brightly-coloured suits, flashy socks, and silk hankies seem ironic, but as Ms Lewis points out, a popular trend is to dress well in inexpensive vintage clothes. Modern dandyism borrows from the past to create a new expression of the present.

“Younger men who are opting out of the traditional form of hip-hop fashion are creating a new expression of hip-hop aesthetic,” she says.

Ghetto Rags

I have been a fan of Big Rude Jake, a fantastic Toronto swing band, for many years and I was lucky enough to be a member of the audience for their recently recorded live album. For that show, Jake wore a long, flashy 3-piece suit,  gooey with fabric, and oozing with style. When I asked him about it, Jake told me that when he tours the U.S., he likes to shop in men’s apparel stores that cater to the black community, and that’s where it came from.

Jake in "ghetto rags".

He tells me that these shops are frequented mostly by poor and working class black families, and the clothes that these shops carry are known as “ghetto rags”.

“The fabric on these suits are not the best material,” he says, “but the styles are always wild and the colours are bright and fun. Same with the shirts, socks, and shoes.  There is a strong retro feel to the designs, and a kind of cool, jaunty elegance. The feedback I get when I wear one of these numbers is alway positive. People rave about them!”
One thing I learned from doing the Black History month series is that the civil rights movement had one goal: freedom, and this came in many forms. Part of the freedom people worked for was freedom of expression through music and through style, and this molded African-American identity. During the 60s and 70s, African-Americans embraced their African heritage through style, bright colour, and clothing, and the modern black dandy, in his fancy suits in vivid colours, also reflects an African influence.
Jake makes an interesting point in that “Wealthier black people often adopt the dreary fashion statements of the dominant white culture, which, these days, tends to favour drab colours over sharpness and pizzazz.”
He says that the truly impoverished make an effort to look glamourous with bright colours and fancy suits when the occasion calls for it. In many ways, this is about self and cultural respect, and it’s no surprise that the people most amazed by Jake’s brilliant stage clothes are white people. “They just never get to see a man in a purple double-breasted suit!”
Homophobia

When people think of dandyism, Oscar Wilde may come to mind. Wilde was a brilliant author and playwright of the 19th century who loved to dress in fancy clothing and happened to carry on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but his dandyism and his affair with Bosie, as Wilde called him, is purely coincidental.

Through her exhibition, Ms Lewis confronts the homophobia that exists in the African-American community because “many people attribute dandyism with sexuality and homosexuality. Just because someone dresses well doesn’t mean they are gay, and just because someone is gay doesn’t mean they dress well.”

The dandy lion exhibition seeks to confront homophobia, breaking any links between taking pride in oneself and sexual orientation (much like the modern urban metrosexuals who despite their good taste in clothing, culture, wines, and grooming products, are straight and proud of it).

“All it takes sometimes is exposure to an idea to be picked up and embraced by young people,” Ms Lewis says.

A range of role models is absolutely to the benefit of black youth throughout the US, challenging the sweeping negative stereotypes of black men so often supported and sustained by the US media. With any luck, the modern dandies, the dandy lions, are breaking that mold and offering a more positive cultural identity to black men in the US and abroad.

Are you interested in looking dandy yourself? Check out Pimpernel Clothing and the Gentleman’s Emporium for Victorian-inspired clothing.

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