When Kanye West and his sartorial cohorts left the Comme des Garcons show during Paris Fashion Week, it was business as usual. Dressed to the nines, they were quickly met with the customary sparkling of paparazzi flash bulbs and fashion enthusiasts, stray wanton women, and BlackBerry buzz. However, as images of the internationally mod clan hit gossip blogs back on the mainland, things started to get ugly.
“Only gays wear that [crap]!” wrote blog reader “TheTruth,” while another reader advised that they should “go taste the rainbow.” “Bootylishious” wrote that he/she simply “feel(s) sorry for all those gay dudes,” and sadly, the list goes on. It seems that just as we settle into our most modern America yet, the tradition of black fashion has been lost.
“It used to be that men who were comfortable with masculinity could get away with anything. Look at Shaft. Now, that was a man in control.”
Come on, nobody remembers the infamous 1970s, when George Clinton decidedly looked like an acid trip had leaked all over his wardrobe? Or the 1980s, when dance sensations like The World Class Wreckin’ Cru had Dr. Dre proudly wearing eyeliner and bias-cut tops? Or even the tender 1990s, when R&B groups like New Edition would slide around wearing half-shirts and practicing synchronized kick turns?
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With the current onslaught of homophobic rage against Kanye West and his globally chic crew ( comprised of style maverick Fonzworth Bentley and Taz Arnold of musical group Sa-Ra to name a few), it seems like Generation Y has all but forgotten that the ritual of expressive dress was in fact borne of the black-male community. If young audiences would dare to conduct a comparative study, they'd inevitably find that Kanye West’s 2007 Grammy outfit really had nothing on Eddie Murphy’s red-leather get-up in his 1987 stand-up film Delirious, and that Prince and his bedazzled unitards would quickly render André 3000’s Top-Siders and patterned suspenders meek and perhaps even typical.
So what’s gone wrong? How did the community that once welcomed Little Richard become so violently judgmental? And why, in 2009, is “looking gay” in the black community even an issue?
To help answer this question, The Daily Beast caught up with both Fonzworth Bentley, author of Advance Your Swagger and creator and host of MTV’s From G’s to Gents, and Harvard professor Marcyliena Morgan, creator of the university’s renowned Hip-Hop Archive.
“First of all, people shouldn’t give homosexuality that credit!” Bentley chides playfully when asked why young black men seem to widely associate high fashion with homosexuality. He’s on the phone from Los Angeles, and despite the lively chatter in the background, his voice quickly steadies itself and he starts to fully consider his history with fashion.
“My influences are James Van Der Zee, Duke Ellington… the 1930s. My father is my role model. My grandfather. He wore a fedora every day. But most men today don’t have anyone to help them ‘get grown,’ you know? I was raised with confidence. If I’m walking down the street and a man and a woman are kissing on one side, it wouldn’t bother me if on the other side two men were kissing. I’d just keep going forward. I believe that if you pay too much attention to all that, it says more about you than them quite honestly. ”
Bentley knows whereof he speaks: From G’s to Gents has helped to refine a handful of “thugs” who entered boasting about the importance of “street cred” and exited wearing Italian cut suits and tie pins. “I wanted to create a show like this because there really isn’t anyone explaining what people see on TV today, so viewers blindly ingest it. Then it’s suddenly the status quo. But realizing your self worth is a powerful thing.”
And according to Professor Morgan, who spoke at her office at the Du Bois Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bentley’s assertions that males in the black community tend to follow the herd (at least in dress) are spot-on.
“There’s a tremendous policing that occurs in our community,” she said before turning to her computer to pull up a flamboyant YouTube video of Larry Blackmon, lead singer of 1980s R&B group Cameo. “See?” she asks as Blackmon’s high-pitched “Taste Like Candy” swirls from her Mac speakers; “[Blackmon] used to be all over the television in this red cup-thing [formally called a codpiece] wearing blue tights. But there was a break in the system. Today, kids die over color… Wearing red can get you killed.”
Morgan says she believes, however, that by storming popular media with images of Bentley and his dapper entourage, the anger will eventually diminish. “If clothing continues to be read in terms of sexuality, it’s always going to challenge the current sense of masculinity… While people may not adopt these [Kanye-esque] looks fully, they will inevitably serve to soften the boundaries around black-male fashion.”
Bentley explains that revolutionizing fossilized mentalities can be oddly likened to, in his words, boiling a bunny. “Now, if you put a little bunny in a pot of boiling water, it jumps out quickly,” he warns, “but if you place the bunny in the water and turn the heat up slowly, the bunny will cook. You understand?”
And as light-hearted as Bentley’s approach to fashion-as-influence is, there is power in his underlining idea—that through relentless, steady care for what he calls “the iPod generation,” young black males will slowly shed their “sense of entitlement and gain respect for the steps to success and even to manhood.” And the time for change couldn’t be more ripe, as only a few weeks back an 11-year-old African American boy named Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself from an extension cord in his mother’s Massachusetts home due to “months of antigay bullying” in which his peers would terrorize the former Boy Scout for “acting and dressing gay.”
“Today, kids act like the world started with their generation,” says the professor as she clicks off her YouTube tomb of black-male fashions. “Our generation was blind to fashion racism and so it didn’t influence our style. Historic and traditional references have been omitted. It used to be that men who were comfortable with masculinity could get away with anything. Look at Shaft. Now, that was a man in control.”
So while Fonzworth Bentley is right to suggest that “the world doesn’t have a lack of heroes, it has a lack of responsibility,” it’s imperative that Gen Y stakes their own claim in this movement and starts dusting off old album covers to reclaim their history. The current idea that homosexuality is the demon behind the blac-male presence in high fashion is ridiculous at best and it simply serves to remind us that while we might have a confident black president in office, not everything has changed for the community at large. But thank heavens for the self-assured Bentley, who gingerly avows that by adhering to examples of strength and kindness, both international and paternal, the present aggression against homosexuality and the presumption of its trimmings will soften and the judgments will subside.
“See, kids still feel as though they have to prove their manhood,” says Bentley, “but I know who I am and whose I am. What people say about me and [my friends] doesn’t bother me one bit. I know where their fight comes from. But we need to teach our children to compete globally and as my mother always said, just ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Elizabeth Gates is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing. A former intern at Vogue, her interest in image, art, and fashion has driven her desire to contribute to the vast narrative of modern culture in America and abroad.