It’s Not Just Clothes That Maketh The Black Dandy
Their suits are sharp, their looks deliciously colorful, but the black dandy’s sartorial sense has also been shaped by the cross-currents of racial history and prejudice.
In a room full of well-dressed men, he still stands out. A cranberry-colored pocket square pops from his forest green double-breasted jacket, while the teal undertones of his vintage suit glisten in the sun.
As he walks about the rooftop garden at New York’s Hotel Chantelle, where he is hosting a Kentucky Derby bash, there’s a swagger in his step. “Ooh!” marvels a young lady who enters his orbit. He greets her with a charming gap-toothed grin, and says hello.
There’s nothing obvious about his look. His plaid pastel tie subtly nods to spring from between his peaked lapels. And his pants fall effortlessly above his brown suede boots with each step.
But what you don’t know is he tailored the suit himself. And the straw hat that crowns his head of gray hair is a ’60s Dobbs fedora he altered from its original shape (which he can point out to you in an archive, by the way).
“I worry about every little detail,” says Ignacio Quiles, 62, whose thick, gray beard is as much an accessory as the circular tortoise shell glasses that frame his face. “I worry about when I open my jacket, how it’s gonna look, how it’s gonna flow...”
He undoes a button just long enough to reveal his olive vest, and the oversized ring on his finger and the chunky chain bracelets on his wrist bling off the fabric.
Quiles comes from a long history of elegant gentleman of the African diaspora, also known as the black dandy.
In recent years, black dandyism has become an increasingly documented global phenomenon from New York City to London’s Saville Row to Brazzaville in the Congo.
Quiles is among the beautifully diverse images of these men in urban and rural settings around the world on display through July 12 in “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity,” a photo exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.
“We’re constantly being bombarded with the same image of black people, over and over again—the same tropes played out again and again in media and in movies and in journalism and popular culture. So to see something that is contrary to the dominant narrative is so refreshing,” says Shantrelle P. Lewis, the curator of “Dandy Lion” who began documenting the black dandy in 2010. “When [black men] walk inside this exhibition, they see themselves reflected on the wall, and it’s a very powerful thing.”
While the dandy historically evokes images of white men from the Victorian era in petticoats and ruffled blouses, the men in “Dandy Lion” are not that. “A brotha may pair an African print bowtie with a tweed, plaid jacket and some shell-top Adidas,” says Lewis.
These self-fashioned gentlemen, who garnered mainstream attention in 2011 when The New York Times christened Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi of the style blog Street Etiquette as the new age black dandy, mix and match classic European fashion with African diasporan aesthetics.
Through style and attitude, the black dandy exerts his agency to defy monolithic notions of black manhood.
He is more than a rapper, an athlete, or a thug. And just because he dresses well doesn’t make him gay.
“People don’t really understand the dandy phenomenon, the dandy man. They don’t really understand his motivation for his presentation,” says Arteh Odjidja, a London-based photographer whose work, “Stranger in Moscow,” is featured in the exhibit. “People will look at him and say, ‘Oh, he’s really well dressed, he’s wearing bright colors, so he must be gay.’ That’s ridiculous.”
Lewis initially elected to exclusively showcase images of straight men in earlier iterations of “Dandy Lion” to indirectly confront homophobia in the black community and the stereotype of well-groomed men as effeminate.
“If you photograph black men who identify as straight, that in and of itself deconstructs all of your ideas about what masculinity and manhood looks like within the black community,” she says.
Sexuality aside, the history of black dandyism is rich and complex, dating back to 18th-century England when black servants were forced to dress up like their slave owners for sport.
“Clothing was one of the first pieces of property enslaved people actually owned when [they] were brought over on the transatlantic slave trade,” says Lewis. “So our relationship to clothing is very unique and very special, and it’s how we express not the concepts that society has of us, but rather how we want to be seen in a larger society.”
The complicated past of black dandyism is notably absent at the Derby party at Hotel Chantelle, as Quiles assembles his contemporaries for a photo op.
Among them is Nigerian menswear blogger Steven Onoja, who was photographed by Rog Walker (who broke the Internet with his photos of Solange Knowles’s wedding) in a large-scale installation that opens “Dandy Lion,” and Kenyan designer Zedekiah Lukoye.
Both men, in their 20s, are sharply dressed: Onoja in a gray three-piece suit that gorgeously contrasts his dark skin, and Lukoye in classic pink-and-white searsucker, a pair of purposely worn-in white kicks, and a daisy on his lapel (“Real men wear real flowers,” he laughs).
The style of the black dandy is more like his grandfather’s than that of Beau Brummel, the founding father of dandyism, who is rumored to have shined his boots with champagne.
Randolph Matthews, who was photographed in the exhibit by British-Iranian photographer Sara Shamsavari, says his style is a mix of past, present and future—an amalgamation of the pride of his immigrant parents from Grenada, the clashing of cultures in London, and a bit of his own imagination.
The African diasporan influence is especially unique in London, to which many blacks immigrated from British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.
“There is a solidarity and they influence one another, these different nations and different cultures, and they look to one another for style and for inspiration,” says Shamsavari.
But it starts with the simple things. “There’s so much in ironing your shirt and doing that properly,” says Matthews. “And collars, and making sure a shirt is as white as you can get it. I remember my mum with the [ironing] board, and doing her best to really get those clothes ready.”
Traditionally, while much of dandyism is studied and collected over time, it is also inherent. “You always have that eye for detail even from a very young age,” says Odjidja. “You’ll actually correct your mother when she’s putting out your clothes. Like, ‘Mother, why can’t I wear the brown loafers with that outfit? It would look better.’”
“Not everyone is a dandy,” says Quiles. “Everyone aspires to get to that elevated level of being called a dandy, or dapper. But I always say it’s a long sartorial journey.”
It can become an expensive habit, but a true dandy knows how to execute on a less expensive scale. He doesn’t discriminate because he never knows where he’ll find his next great piece. It’s a constant quest. He’ll shop and thrift and tailor and restyle until he gets it right.
“I always say to people you have to have the holy trinity of fashion, which is a good barber, a good cobbler, and a good tailor,” Quiles says. “When you have those three, you’ll always be okay.”
Whether in America or Great Britain or countries in Africa, the black dandy is his own man.
“It’s not like subcultures in which people are all connected by the same music tastes or political leanings. This is more about the expression of the peacock, which is more of an innate, masculine tendency,” says Rose Callahan, co-author of I Am Dandy: The Return of The Elegant Gentleman, whose portrait of Quiles is featured in “Dandy Lion.” “It’s not like these guys want to dress like each other and be part of the same group.”
Hip-hop is also a prominent source of inspiration for the latest generation of black dandy—evident in his resistance to the status quo, and the way he samples different cultures, styles, and eras, much like a producer.
“When hip-hop came along, men and women started dressing down as a form of rebellion. Now, the ironic thing is that it’s actually conservative to dress down,” says rapper-singer Jidenna, whose bouncy debut single and music video, “Classic Man,” is an unexpected ode to the “street elegant old-fashioned man.”
He and his cohorts from Janelle Monae’s Wondaland label fashion themselves after freed enslaved peoples from Reconstruction to Civil Rights.
“All across this world, especially within the African diaspora, we feel like there is a constant devaluing of our culture and our livelihood,” says Jidenna. “That devaluing makes certain men around the world say, ‘You know what, I am valuable and I feel valuable and I’m going to dress valuable. I’m going to make sartorial choices that show the value I feel about myself.’”
Jidenna subscribes to the concept of “The New Jim Crow,” introduced by civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander in her book of the same name, which argues that mass incarceration of blacks in America operates as a system of racial control much like the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“I like to think that we have a hundred-year vision,” he says of the time span of freed enslaved peoples he and his crew have studied. “When we dress, we remember that hundred-year vision.” Suited up is, literally, a form of protest.
Quiles says some of the most powerful images he remembers growing up as a kid in Harlem are from the Civil Rights Era, notably Bloody Sunday.
“You’re about to get attacked by dogs. You’re about to get hit by sticks. But yet you’re going [to march] in the most dignified manner,” he says. “And it didn’t matter what social status they had, you remembered their images as very powerful because they didn’t just go down there wearing anything. That to me says a lot about the power of the way you look.”
Some critics of black dandyism dismiss it as respectability politics—when blacks self-police negative perceptions of blackness by adapting to mainstream values, instead of challenging society for its failure to accept difference.
In cities across the country, from Baltimore to Ferguson, Missouri, to Sanford, Florida, a black man's clothing has the unfortunate liability of marking him as a threat.
“Black men and black boys in particular are in a very precarious situation because their bodies are these actual sites of conflict,” says Lewis. “The way in which they represent themselves in fashion and dress is also a role they’re playing in this game that has a lot at stake.”
“The thing is, a suit is not going to stop a black man from being racially profiled. It’s not going to save his life. But it is a form of armor,” she continues.
The freedom, and resistance, of the black dandy is his choice to articulate his own identity. He is not adapting, nor is he placing himself above his peers—he is exercising his agency to reject the marginalized identity society has placed upon him. That kind of self-empowerment is one of the most powerful armors he can have.
As the crowd thins at the Derby event, Quiles finds himself at the center of the room, happily dancing on his own.
His flair distinguishes him from the crowd, but never screams for attention—instead, it signals his presence. You don’t know who he is. But you know he is important. Others may have loosened a tie or undone a button, but not him. His suit stays immaculate.