Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Black dandy, when a pocket square is much more

Kia Chenelle, The Waiting Man I, 2013. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

I always thrill at a flash of j'ne sais quoi; whether it's the angle of a hat, a splash of pocket square or a dramatic and unexpected color worn with confidence. The traveling exhibition, Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity, at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco until September 18, offers that thrill with sociological impact and meaning. 

Through photographs and film, curator Shantrelle P. Lewis shows us images of black men from around the world who assert their presence through their conscious use of dashing, elegant and stereotype-challenging mode of dress. The show defines a Black dandy as "self-fashioned gentleman who intentionally assimilates classical European fashion with African Diasporian aesthetics and sensibilities."

A sampling of the sharp style from the show:

Sara Shamsavari, Cal ‘Caligraphist’ Librea, London, 2014. Archival pigment print. 
Courtesy of the artist.

Sara Shamsavari, Terrence Lathan, London, 2013. Archival pigment print. 
Courtesy of the artist.

Radcliffe Roye, Untitled No. Two, 2011. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

Hanif Abdur-Rahim, Ubiquitous SWAG, 2010. C–Print. Courtesy of the artist.

I'm reading a book I bought at the MoAD gift store, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity by Monica L. Miller. This is a part of cultural history I didn't know about and there is so much to the story. She begins in the 18th century when African slaves were brought to England, America and the West Indies with nothing, really nothing, naked. They were issued clothes that they often modified. The Black dandy modified European dress in ways that played with social hierarchies, using elements from the perceived higher class.

In the book Miller says, "As a form of cultural resistance, Black dandyism functions as a kind of fashionable weapon of the weak, an everyday form of resistance...the enslaved and marginalized use to comment on their relationship to authority."

Time and thought spent on fashion and personal style is often seen as frivolous and inconsequential; but I learned from the show and book that historically for the Black dandy, the expression of personal style could be a matter of presence or oblivion. Or even life or death. Black dandy style is life affirming and provides a way to resist and survive. This is personal style with extreme meaning.