cool and dandy

June 01, 2017

words by: Roger Noel

Editor's note: We're revisiting this piece - one of our favorites - from 2015, by Globetrotter Editor-At-Large Roger Noel in honor of the upcoming release of curator and author Shantrelle P. Lewis’s new book, "Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style." The Brooklyn Museum celebrates Shantrelle's exhibit and book with a party on Thursday, June 1.  

Here, Roger shares formative memories and a gorgeous analysis of the power, influence and brilliance of disaporic black style. 

My paternal grandmother had twin brothers, Uncle George and Uncle John. John was a cook who lived in London in the fifties - quite the well-spoken, well-dressed gentleman: bespoke suits, suspenders, fastidious grooming, silver-backed boar bristle brushes in his leather dopp kit. Edward the Prince of Wales was his sartorial hero. As a sandal clad, dashiki-wearing teenager in the seventies, I dismissed him as an an ‘old colonial,' never imagining I would dress like him, perhaps until I inherited some of his clothes. You know how this story goes. Now, when I wear his perfectly-constructed suits, I think of what it cost him - in all kinds of ways material and psychic - to be so superbly attired. As Malcolm X is rumored to have said, “You can’t get anything unless you look like you’ve got something." Uncle John would have agreed.

Yet it's too narrow a lens to think of these stylish forebearers as simply being invested in a conversation with ‘the other,’ or proving themselves to ‘respectable.' There's an innate sensibility some brothers have for elegance - an aesthetic sense, a part of our DNA, that sees clothing as a canvas for play and for self expression - a refusal to be boxed in by the binary strictures and western aesthetics sometimes so alien to our nature. As the famed fashion writer Diana Vreeland once said, “Pink is the navy blue of India." A pink suit is incongruous only if you're so limited in your thinking that a suit can only be a certain, somber kind of color.

From Afro-Funk to the Jazz Age to the Hip-Hop era, black people have set the style and sound the world revolves around. And it’s certainly not because we follow the rules.

With all that in mind, I caught Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) on the last day it was up in Chicago. I’d seen the show twice before, but knowing I was going to write about it had me preparing a little more, reading the catalogue, and even grabbing a copy of Monia Miller’s book, Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity in preparation. It was clear that Dandy Lion was going to be a ground-breaking and record setting exhibit - as it was, the attendance had already surpassed the previous record for exhibits at MoCP by more than 20%. 

Thanks to Brooklyn/Philadelphia-based curator Shantrelle P. Lewis, the show was beautifully put together, full of interesting artists exploring the right questions about that brilliant aesthetic sense that so often goes unappreciated, or just plain appropriated. As it had before, the work of Harness Hamese (of South Africa's Khumbule Collective) resonated strongly with me. Beyond the clothes - sourced by Loux The Vintage Guru - the staging, styling, and faces of Andile Biyana and Lourens Gebhardt were pure poetry. They collaborate under the umbrella Love Is African. Nuff respect!

The series of photographs (or rather, ambrotypes) by Jody Ake referenced earlier eras with their craft and technique, but also by being so beautifully composed and lit and the subjects so dignified that they seemed to stand outside of time - harking back to James Van Der Zee and classic images of Black masculinity from the Harlem Renaissance. Sara Shamsavari's multimedia work placed her subjects on the streets of London, then pulling you in close, allowing you to listen in on their intimate musings on style, family and culture.

The Waiting Man 1,  Kia Chenelle

The Waiting Man 1, Kia Chenelle

Les Sapeurs of Daniele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo must get their props for flying the flag of a fiercely elegant, Congolese sensibility mixed with classic western vestments. "The clothes worn by the 'Sapeurs' may look familiar but the way they wear them isn’t," wrote designer Paul Smith in reference to Tamagni's images. “The passion they have for clothes is so unusual today, whilst the care and attention to detail given to everything they wear dates back to the time of the first dandies, when entire outfits would be carefully considered on a daily basis." 

In Slaves to Fashion, Monica Miller quotes Stuart Hall on black popular culture: “I ask you to note, how within the black repertoire, style - which mainstream cultural critics often believe to be the mere husk, the wrapping, the sugar coating on the pill - has become itself the subject of what is going on. Think of how these cultures have used the body - as if it was, and often it was, the only cultural capital we had. We have worked on ourselves as the canvasses of representation.”

This is the point for me. Because in the end it’s not the clothes, not the shoes, not the hat. It’s not just the what, it’s also the why, the way, the how we rock it that makes it so remarkable - like the simple, unexpected detail of a fedora worn backwards in one of the exhibit's photos.

What's remarkable about this moment, and what’s worth celebrating, is an expansion of the ways Black Masculinity is perceived. It's also a revival (and/or retrieval) of those centuries (if not millenia) old African virtues. Virtues like the art of embodying cool, or itutu, in Yoruba - that calm, collected, considered face forward. As elucidated by the late J.K Adejumo, a Yoruba sage: "Coolness or gentleness of character is so important in our lives. Coolness is the correct way to represent yourself as a human being." 

Or as the very modern dandy Andre Benjamin once put it, "Cool is not just one type of cool - cool is confidence. Knowing what you are and being just fine with it.”