In the introduction to Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style, Shantrelle P. Lewis defines the black dandy as “a gentleman who intentionally appropriates classical European fashion, but with an African diasporan aesthetic and sensibility.”
In discussions of cultural appropriation, Europeans are usually on the other side of the looking glass. But dandyism has always been rooted in the subversion of social structures.
In Victorian England, the cradle of dandyism, Oscar Wilde and Beau Brummell showed up and turned out as a winking affront to the aristocracy, even as they aspired to its lifestyle of art, leisure and intellectual pursuits.
At the time, African slaves in England were often lavishly appointed by their well-to-do owners: Julius Soubise, a favorite of the eccentric Duchess of Queensbury, became a famous dandy in his own right in the late 18th century. In the U.S., a black man’s wardrobe identified him as free or enslaved, so dressing well was an act of self-preservation, as well as an exercise of freedom and a display of creativity.
Lewis brings this rich history to life in Dandy Lion, shining a light on the men—and women (hey Janelle Monáe)—continuing the sartorial rebellion everywhere from Chicago to the Congo.
Today’s black dandies, she maintains, are making consciously juxtaposing their style against the dangerous media stereotypes of African-American men as violent aggressors.
“For black men, fashion choices can be a choice of life or death,” she writes, citing the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. “For dandies, dress becomes a strategy for negotiating the complexities of black male identity. The suit can be a form of armor, although not bulletproof.”
While she acknowledges that the black dandy is innately queer, sexuality is not at the forefront of Lewis’ work. She is more interested in dismantling the underlying assumptions linked to race and masculinity.
The Dandy Lion Project dates back to 2010, when a friend asked Lewis to curate a small show at a pop-up gallery in Harlem. That display sparked a larger dialogue and grew into an ever-expanding international exhibit.
But her original mission remains intact: to depict black men’s struggle to confront stereotypes, challenge conceptions of masculinity, and cultivate a new identity for the 21st century.
Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style is out now on Aperture