Let’s Talk About Dandies! A Look at Shantrelle P. Lewis’s Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style


As I flipped through the pages of Shantrelle P. Lewis’s Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style, I recalled the black men of style I grew up seeing in Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s. Words like “clean,” “sharp,” “cold,” and “tight” were used to compliment and signify on how artfully their looks had been put together. Not all of these men could be described as dandies, yet, there was something distinct about the aplomb with which their pocket squares were situated, the attitude with which their hats were positioned on their heads. Some of them made a bold masculine style statement by dressing from head to toe in bright colors like orange, yellow, lime green, and red. And there was something about this aesthetic that seemed culturally specific to Afro-American culture.

Largely a photographic project centered around black men of style, The Dandy Lion Project began in 2010 when Shantrelle P. Lewis was asked to curate an exhibition for a pop-up gallery in Harlem. The exhibition was titled “Dandy Lion: Behold…A Gentleman,” and featured the work of 14 photographers who responded to a call for submissions that Ms. Lewis put out on social media. Her intention was to showcase imagery to counter stereotypical images of black men as thugs.

Olushola Bashorun, “The New Stereotype, 2015-16”

The Dandy Lion Project continued to grow, and prior to publication of this hardcover volume of 175 pages and over 200 photographs on aperture books in 2017 – Shantrelle P. Lewis published an article titled “Fashioning Black Masculinity: The Origins of the Dandy Lion Project” in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art (#37 – November 2015), in which she wrote that “In the beginning I requested that the photographers shoot only men who identified as straight in order to challenge assumptions about what types of men wear fitted clothing and pink shirts, as well as to challenge the homophobia that plagues our communities. Today the project includes men of varied sexual orientations and identities. However, while I acknowledge the black dandy as a queer figure, sexuality is not at the forefront of this particular dialogue.”

Sara Shamsavari, “Samson Soboye, 2014”

When I first picked up Dandy Lion – honestly – I was just interested in looking at images of nattily-dressed black men in all their hairless or dreadlocked, mustachioed, bow-tied and tilted-hat-wearing glory. I’ve always enjoyed gazing at a well-groomed man, a man with confidence, presence, and personal style. This hasn’t always meant the man wearing the most expensive threads, but rather, the one who looks like the act of getting dressed is something he does creatively and intentionally — maybe even more for himself than for any admiring audience.

This past summer, I saw some well-dressed men at an outdoor concert at Chene Park in Detroit. I asked to take their picture and they posed for me:

I had no clear concept of who could be called a dandy: a vague image of a dapper gentleman twirling a cane came to mind. But reading Lewis’s opening “Fashion Statement” to Dandy Lion, I learned that “Not every brother in a suit and a bow tie is a dandy. Dandyism is more than just grooming or style….Specific attributes and attitudes distinguish the Black dandy from the everyday dapper Don: a Black dandy is a gentleman who intentionally appropriates classical European fashion, but with an African diasporan aesthetic and sensibility.”

Lewis describes [white] dandies of the Victorian era as “self-made, middle class men who dressed like the aristocracy and took on its intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations despite not being born into the upper class” and points to Oscar Wilde and Beau Brummell as being two figures whose “sartorially defiant acts disrupted the class order” of the times.

Because Dandy Lion introduced me to styles, people, and ideas, as well as literature, film, blogs, and movements; and because it introduced me to words like sartorial, Negropolitan, and Afropean; the proverbial rabbit hole beckoned me (come closer, learn more!).

Hassan Hajjaj, “Mr.Toliver, London, 2010”

I recalled visiting the Studio Museum in Harlem and purchasing the special Black Fashion issue of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art a few years ago. Then I wound up in the public library trying to locate Slaves to Fashion, by Monica L. Miller – which Lewis cites in Dandy Lion. Instead, I found Richard J. Powell’s article, “Sartor Africanus” tucked inside a book called Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture, edited by Susan Fillin-Yeh.

(photo by Leslie Reese)

In “Sartor Africanus,” Powell writes that “….the clothes do more than signify the aristocratic status of their wearers: they underscore the essentialness of art in life, as well as form a protective wall against white racism and its uncanny ability to render people of color invisible. The black dandy transforms and problematizes an unalloyed, one-dimensional definition of black masculinity via his sartorial splendor, his fastidious attention to ornament and detail, and his expansion of the parameters of desire across and within the traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality.”

I was also intrigued that Powell included mention of “black activist dandies like the novelist William Wells Brown, the artist Robert Douglass Jr., the elocutionist William Craft, and of course the legendary orator Frederick Douglass…”

I shared Dandy Lion with a couple of black men and asked them about their favorite photographs. Thank you to Freddy, and to Charles for selecting images to accompany this post, including one from above by Olushola Bashorun, and this one:

Niklas Nyman, “T-Michael,2015”

and this one:

Rog Walker,”Steven Onoja, 2016″

and this one:

Sara Shamsavari, “Colman Domingo and Christian Dante White, London, 2014”

I really love this quote that Shantrelle P. Lewis uses as the outro to her book. It’s from Rolando “Rog” Walker, who – along with his wife, Bee Walker – create work as photographers and sartorialists:

“It’s a very natural conversation, re-articulating Black masculinity. I was born in Jamaica and grew up with traditional parents and with what is deemed proper: you come to America; you’ll go to school and be successful. To be an artist goes against that very nature – to do this thing and communicate using this medium. On the other side, this is how I express my masculinity. Those two things are at odds with culture in general. It’s my radical voice and their radical voice having a conversation.”

Rog Walker, “Self Portrait with Bee, 2015”

Note: With the exception of the photographs of the well-dressed men at Chene Park, the images of Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummell, Williams Wells, Brown, and Frederick Douglass; and the photo of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art with Dandies Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture – all of the photos are from the book, Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style.
Read about Rog and Bee Walker.

19 Comments

  1. This is such a cool post. I also love looking at fashionable pictures, which I rarely see with guys displaying their personal style. “Dandy Lion” as a title for this suave and sophisticated portfolio of sorts is tip top. Thanks for sharing Leslie!

    1. Hello Sparkyjen! -Yes, I love the term “Dandy Lion”, and I’m glad you liked this post. This really is a unique coffee table book, and I am enjoying returning again and again to admire the fashionable images of confidence and self-determination.

  2. I…love…this Leslie! I’ve noticed the same trend, ethnically with so-called Black people across the globe. Islanders and Africans tend to have quite a bit of color in their wardrobes, and Black Americans are no different. I would never suggest it’s just hereditary, but I have noticed it. I also really liked reading that Powell quote. I can see how dress is a form of liberation. Kind of like, you can oppress me in other ways, but I can express myself in clothing however I choose 😉 Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hey Kathy!
      Yeah, I don’t know that having a colorful wardrobe is hereditary, but, my comment that a certain way of getting dressed seemed “culturally specific to Afro-American culture” was more an acknowledgment that I WASN’T SEEING white men dressed that way.

      Using dress as a form of liberation and expression is really artful and dynamic….and it’s fluid! You get to change it up!

      It took me a while to figure out how to put this post together. There was a lot that got left “on the editing floor” as they say, because I was kind of enthralled with a lot of different aspects of the book (Dandy Lion) in particular, and black dandyism in general. ( So I’m glad you love it – lol)

  3. Because I can never resist a pun: This was a dandy post! So many things to think about in relation to masculinity in general and black masculinity in particular. Like you, I enjoy a well-dressed person – male or female – and am in awe of people who dress so artfully and with obvious delight and a sense of playfulness. All these images are truly delightful. I’ve never thought of clothes as “disruptive” but it makes sense in the context of class and colour expectations and behaviour expectations. Really, a thoroughly thought provoking post.

    1. Hi Susanne – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I seem to have “got a crush on” dandyism, now. The book introduced me to so many great looks and ideas. It sneaks up on you: the assumptions we hold about “masculinity in general and black masculinity in particular,” and I love that these beautiful images are the reasons why I am thinking about it.

  4. Oooh, I done fall down de rabbit hole!

    Thanks so much for boosting my vocabulary and explaining the difference between a dandy and a dapper don. It would mean, then, that the latter is prevalent in my country. The former wouldn’t fly, except on the runway, I suppose. Toxic masculinity is pervasive here. Which is a pity, because I adore the range of creative fashion statements in your post. And what a thought, to dress intentionally for oneself, and to do so as a form of art. I’m now inspired to dress intentionally, not necessarily as a woman dandy (now that would be a fascinating post), but as a form of creative self-expression.

    I have a question: Is dandyism similar to a cultural appropriation of black culture, but in reverse?

    1. Guess what, Nadine? Dandy Lion does actually include a couple of photographs by Prisca M. Monnier, of three female dandies, entitled “Dandy Queens, Paris, 2014” – click on this link to view some of her work. There are a few other “female dandy” images as well, including some of Janelle Monae.

      Did you notice that Rog Walker-whose quote I used to close out the post-is Jamaican born? His wife, muse, sartorial and photography partner-Bianca “Bee” Walker-was born in Kenya.

      Your question about cultural appropriation is a great one. I’m unsure of how to answer, for some reason I don’t think it is quite the same, mostly because in the case of blacks born into Western cultures, western styles of dress were the norm; and black [men] put their own spin on it. (maybe I can send Shantrelle P. Lewis the question??)

      1. Thanks so much for sharing that link about Dandy Queens. This topic is so fascinating. I feel as if I’ve entered a new world.

        Yes, I had noticed that he’s Jamaican. We inna everyt’ing. 🙂

        That’s a good point. Yes, please send her the question. I’d really like to know. I get what you’re saying, though, that it might not be the same.

    1. Yay! Selecting a limited number of photographs to post was a challenge. In the end, I think that posting a few of my favorites along with those selected by my men friends made a nice sampling. Thank you for hanging-out, Brigid!

    1. Yes, Bernadette, that’s my feeling, exactly. One of the men I shared it with was visibly impressed that this celebration of black men was done in such a fine quality volume, he held it in his hands like valuable treasure and asked “Where did you get this from?” I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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