This global style movement offers a view on black male identity
A hot pink tie with matching spectacles. A bright blue turban photographed against multicolored wallpaper. A pair of orange socks peeking out from beneath plaid trousers.
Simple flourishes like these have the power to turn an otherwise unremarkable outfit into an unforgettable one.
They certainly caught the eye of American curator and critic Shantrelle P. Lewis, who included photos of such details in her book “Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style,” a visual archive of a career spent studying the history of dandyism within black communities.
Though dandyism is most associated with early European figures like Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde, who used their dress to establish themselves as intellectual and artistic forces, black men in the United States have used clothing as a means of distinction since the days of slavery, when freed slaves would dress in their best garments to exercise a privilege not afforded to those enslaved.
Since its origins, dandyism has evolved to influence a number of social and cultural movements within black communities around the world. The identity is no longer associated with just one country, gender or sexual orientation, but rather has become an anchor point for self expression.
When describing Grammy-nominee Janelle Monáe’s relationship to dandyism and inclusion in her book, Lewis explains: “Fluidity occurs throughout all forms and spectrums of dandyism.”
In 2010, Lewis looked at how contemporary black men were continuing that legacy of sophisticated dress in “Dandy Lion,” a small photography exhibition staged at a pop-up gallery in Harlem. Since then, she has expanded the exhibition into a global movement called “The Dandy Lion Project,” a traveling multimedia showcase for black photographers and filmmakers who have captured stylish dressers around the world.
The author’s book is an extension of the exhibition, divided into sections that introduce micro movements, groups and individuals that have emerged as a result of dandyism throughout history.
The Swenkas, for instance, are a group of working-class Zulu men in South Africa who began hosting fashion competitions as a means of displaying wealth and rebelling against apartheid. The contests have strict rules regarding how the men must dress and what colors they should sport.
“The Swenka movement became a nonconfrontational protest and resistance against the oppressive and racist regime,” Lewis writes.
“Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style” takes her mission one step further. Within its pages, Lewis presents 225 stunning photographs, along with insights into the lives of the tailors, designers, personalities and photographers involved in the scene.
Weaving together their stories, Lewis shows that, for black dandies around the world — from Chicago and New York to Moscow and Vancouver — clothing can be a powerful tool of self-expression as well as political defiance.
For Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs, founders of the blog Street Etiquette, using the relationship that black men have with clothing was imperative to creating meaningful social commentary. The Bronx natives directed a photo shoot with photographer Rog Walker capturing their subjects in the New York City projects wearing suits in order to answer a question: “What if all men here were wearing suits? Would people be less afraid of the projects?”
“For Black men, fashion choices can be a matter of life or death … For dandies, dress becomes a strategy for negotiating the complexities of Black male identity, and the suit can be a form of armor, although not bulletproof,” Lewis writes.
“By looking sharp, the Black dandy fashions a sense of pride, positivity, and self-worth that can transcend circumstances, as well as societal perceptions. He defies monolithic understandings of what it is to be a man — particularly a Black man — through a colorful and complex dance between race, class, gender, power and style.”