Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 2, 2018
Shantrelle P. Lewis Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style Exh. cat. New York: Aperture, 2017. 144 pp.; 4 color ills.; 140 b/w ills. Hardcover $35.00 (9781597113892)
Brighton Photo Biennial, United Kingdom, October 1–31, 2016; Lowe Museum of Art, Miami, February 23–May 21, 2017

In February 2015, music artist Jidenna released the video to his first single, “Classic Man.” Directed by Alan Ferguson, the video opens with Jidenna getting dressed: he tightens his tie up to his club collar, fastens his cuff links, and steps into his cap-toe oxfords. In a subsequent scene, he walks the streets of Brooklyn surrounded by a group of well-dressed black men in suits. When he spots two young men being handcuffed by two police officers, he intervenes. We don’t know what he says, as the track of the song is still playing, but viewers see Jidenna smile cordially at the officers and engage in a brief conversation, and soon the young men are out of handcuffs and have joined Jidenna on his walk. After the encounter with the police, Jidenna ushers the young men into a fictitious school named Chieftain Academy, where young boys and girls are playing chess, learning karate, and engaging in several science- and technology-related activities. In the following scene, Jidenna and his friends are in a barbershop that features black memorabilia adorning the walls, including vintage photographs of black men dressed in suits and a framed “I Am a Man” poster, referencing the picket signs carried by protestors involved in the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of the video, Jidenna is in a room of black people in fanciful dress, dancing to his song. Music artist Janelle Monáe—who is credited with propelling the artist’s career forward via her music label Wondaland Records—and Jidenna dance side by side as the video comes to a close.

Altogether, the scenes of “Classic Man” offer a compelling narrative of black life, using dress quite strategically to bridge the historical and contemporary black diasporic experience. Jidenna is one of the most recent popular images of the black dandy, and both he and Monáe appear in Shantrelle P. Lewis’s Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy Street Style, a follow-up to the author’s traveling exhibition of the same title. 

Lewis describes Jidenna’s style as an amalgam of his multinational identity, as well as “a form of resistance” (64). Jidenna was born in Wisconsin but spent a portion of his childhood in Nigeria. He began dressing in dandified dress after the death of his father in 2010—a professor and Igbo chief who would often wear three-piece suits paired with a cap and cane. Notes of his Nigerian heritage complement his style aesthetic via ties, pocket squares, and shirts made of ankara—a fabric with a multinational identity of its own. (Of Dutch origin, ankara became popular in West Africa and is now a ubiquitous, fashionable textile used around the world.)

Writing about Monáe—a “quintessential dandy queen” (70)—Lewis discusses the singer’s style as a comment on her upbringing. Her parents were working-class people in Kansas City, Missouri, and she herself worked as a maid at the beginning of her career. Her original style aesthetic featured a black-and-white palette of suits, ties and bowties, and oxford shoes, and her hair was often styled into a defining pompadour. She refers to her style aesthetic as a “uniform,” dedicated to the uniforms worn by her and her parents and a constant reminder to never forget where she came from.

Moving beyond the world of entertainers, Lewis elucidates quotidian approaches to black dandyism, asserting that a black dandy “fashions a sense of pride, positivity, and self-worth that can transcend circumstances, as well as societal perceptions” (9). Personal memories and a shared black diasporic history are the threads connecting all the subjects in Dandy Lion. Examining the last ten years of the black dandy movement, Lewis provides an introduction to the globalization of the modern-day black dandy that draws on a rich history rooted in the self-styling of enslaved and free black men.

Offering a visual oeuvre of contemporary black dandyism, Dandy Lion draws on the work of other dandy enthusiasts such as Rose Callahan, Natty Adams, and Daniele Tamagni, as well as on Monica L. Miller’s groundbreaking study Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), which has become a reference tool and catalyst for recent and forthcoming scholarly projects that engage fashion and African American history. Miller’s book shifts the black dandy from a costumed object in slavery to the self-styling of free men. She writes, “Black dandyism is often seen as being imitative of Western dress and as a sign of one’s aspiration to enter the mainstream, but when interpreted as a signifying practice, it becomes instead a dialogic process that exists in relation to white dandyism at the same time it expresses, through its own internal logic, black culture.”

In chapter 1, “Movements, Destinations, and Happenings,” Lewis compiles images of historical traditions in which the black dandy flourished. Included here is La Sape, an abbreviation for La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élegantes (The Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People), born out of the nineteenth-century sartorial movement known as sapologie, in which houseboys of the European elite would imitate the elite’s mannerisms and dress. The movement has become noted as a “means of resistance against hostile environments, outlasting colonialism, periods of war, and political oppression” (21). The chapter also includes movements now happening online, such as Street Etiquette, a New York–based creative agency launched by Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs, and The New Stereotype, founded by Marquelle Turner-Gilchrist, as well as fashion events such as Liberty Fairs. The movements featured in this chapter underline the importance of creating and maintaining space for black men and women to develop new visualizations of self in their respective locales, as well as globally.

In the second chapter, “People and Personalities,” Lewis selects a handful of individuals—musicians, authors, and social-media influencers—who employ dandyism in both performance and everyday life. Missy Jackson, described as “one of the American South’s most popular drag kings” (63), navigates society as a “same-gender-loving woman” and performs on stage as “Mystikal.” Tiq Milan, who identifies as a trans man, is a writer, educator, and activist who uses clothing that “engages with the tropes of gender and masculinity” (68). Jidenna, Monáe, Amar’e Stoudemire, and others who have looked to dressing dapper as a means to explore gender and sexuality and critique and subvert mainstream perceptions of black life, also appear in this chapter.

Chapter 3, “Designers and Tailors,” highlights black men and women who include dandy aesthetics in their practice. The famed tailor and designer Ozwald Boateng—the first black tailor to open a store on London’s Savile Row—appears here, as does Walé Oyéjidé, the name of whose clothing brand, Ikiré Jones, is an amalgam of his father’s village in Nigeria and his African American wife’s family name; Lewis calls it “a brand that connects cultures literally and figuratively” (100). Also included is William + James, a digital haberdashery founded by the author and a close friend, who were inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin.

Lewis concludes Dandy Lion with a section on photographers who have either dedicated series to black dandyism or photographed subjects who appear to embody the dandy aesthetic. Perhaps most enlightening is Lewis’s inclusion of two photo series—Prisca M. Monnier’s Dandy Queens and Osborne Macharia’s Kenya’s League of Extravagant Grannies—that reflect on women and dandyism. At its inception, Dandy Lion included only cisgender men, as it was the author’s attempt to “challenge homophobic assumptions about what types of men wear fitted clothing and pink shirts” (14). She has expanded her project, however, to include women who employ the dandy aesthetic, asserting that race, gender, and sexuality are foundational in the history and experiences of the black dandy.

Dandy Lion is a beautifully rendered compilation of contemporary black dandyism that not only displays the extraordinary sartorial sensibility of people of the African diaspora but also further elucidates how black people have used style and clothing as a means to navigate space and time. Lewis has enriched this project with personal narratives both from her family tree and from the subjects featured in the book. In choosing to do so, she captures how style, from archival materials to digital social movements, offers a way for people of the African diaspora to preserve their history and look to new ways of seeing and thinking about black bodies in the future.

Rikki Byrd
Lecturer, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis