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.
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.”
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!).
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.
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:
and this one:
and this one:
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.”
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.