Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style

WHILE RIFFLING THROUGH snapshots with her great-uncle Robert a few years ago, the curator Shantrelle P. Lewis realized that she had never once seen him dressed casually. In the introduction to Dandy Lion, she writes that the sartorial resolve of the men in her family inspired the book’s project, which began as an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago in 2015. Lewis defines the black dandy as “a gentleman who intentionally appropriates classical European fashion, but with an African diasporan aesthetic and sensibility.” The book collects old and new photographs of individuals of African descent in West and South Africa, Europe, the US, and the Caribbean. Four thematic sections identify black dandyism’s global origins and essential players—public personalities, designers, and photographers—from Jamaican “rude boys” of the 1960s to Street Etiquette, the Bronx-born website (and now creative agency) founded in 2008, to style icons such as singer Leon Bridges, Southern drag performer Missy “Mystikal” Jackson, and basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire. The portraits—some as brilliantly colorful as a Kehinde Wiley painting—traverse the formalism of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon and the humor and pliancy of Malick Sidibé, while also referencing style blogs and Instagram posts. As the black dandy acclimates to Eurocentric standards of taste and respectability, he also complicates them; he reveals the subversive potential appropriation has when, for once, what’s being annexed is the cultural output of the ruling classes. Dandy Lion is also a book about pleasure; delight and celebration are palpable in each image. With this exuberance, Lewis ably avoids the too-common tendency to “reduce aesthetics, style, and the dynamic struggle over identity to a set of coping mechanisms,” as Robin D. G. Kelley indelibly put it. Lewis does not, however, overlook the fact that self-presentation can have momentous repercussions, pointing out the pivotal role of clothing in the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Lewis places the dandy at the intersection of culture, diaspora, and power; she centers style as a critical consequence of how race, class, and gender are projected and perceived.

Marc Shoul, Adolphus, Soweto, South Africa, 2007, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 × 39 3/8".