Gaining Knowledge: Wendy Jane Attends Two Talks on Black Male Identity In One Week. Part One: Black Dandyism And Hip-Hop

4 Mar

What a great week.  I attended not one, but two talks, with black male identity as their theme.  The second, which will be featured on my next blog post, was given by conceptual photo artist, Hank Willis Thomas.

The first, was a salon on black dandyism held at the Providence Athenaeum, a 175 year-old library, on historic Benefit Street.  Monica L. Miller, Associate Professor of English at Barnard College, and author of the book, Fresh Dressed Like A Million Bucks: A Cultural History of Black Dandyism, led the talk.

The talk was the second given on dandyism , in anticipation of the upcoming Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum exhibition: Artist/Rebel/Dandy/Men of Fashion. The first salon held a week earlier, took a broader, more historic look at the beginnings of dandyism from figures like the elegant George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (1778–1840), up through the 20th century.  The focus, said the Athenaeum, was to look at “the dandy as an artistic, rebellious figure who employs profound thought and imagination in his sartorial and personal presentation, thus forging a unique path to self-discovery and self-expression.”

While I thought Monica Miller’s talk would span several centuries of black dandyism, as she wrote about in her book, she let the crowd know hers would focus on an unpublished chapter in her book on hip-hop culture and dandyism.

About that crowd gathered in the cozy low-ceilinged bottom level of the library.  Seated and surrounded by floor to ceiling shelved tomes, some dating back to the 18th century, the young pony-tailed man sitting next to me, whispered, “’s sort of surreal being in this audience for this talk.”  I knew he was referring to the majority, over 70, white-haired heads that sat at the small tables in front of us, nibbling cheese and crackers, and sipping wine.  I nodded my head and giggled softly as Monica gently warned, that she would be playing snippets of hip-hop music throughout her talk, some with explicit lyrics.  Yet no one’s feathers were rustled by listening to rap, and everyone appeared engaged in the talk, and in the question and answer that followed.

For my middle-aged self, Ms. Miller had me waxing nostalgic with her opening song choice, My Adidas by Run DMC.   She started her talk here, stating that when the hit came out in 1986, this was the first time we saw the relationship between the sound and the look in hip-hop.  At this point in time, the song, as stated in the lyrics was not about consumerism: Adidas only bring good news, and they are not used as selling shoes…According to Ms. Miller, this was the re-birth of a new era of black dandyism in entertainment–one that changed the game after decades of sophistication with Nat King Cole and Cab Calloway, followed by the brat pack suave of Sammy Davis, Jr.  The look of sportswear in rap in the 1980’s was an innovation, a message from urban, working-class black Americans, that built upon the idea of street credibility; of an image of street fabulousness.

The next major shift in black dandyism was said to have occurred almost two decades later, in 2004, when Jay Z and Pharrell changed the game once again with their style of dress, and song, Change Clothes.  Here Jay Z announces that it’s time to show respect and perhaps, now that he’s 30 plus, start dressing that way.  He references Purple Label, a Ralph Lauren line of tailored-suits, which paves the way for what Ms. Miller calls the beginnings of a more modern African-American gentlemen’s movement, that defied the older categories of hip-hop culture and dress.

2004 was the same year that hip hop artist/producer turned fashion mogul, Sean Puffy Combs, or P-Diddy, won the Council of Fashion Designers of America Men’s Designer of the Year Award.  Also on the dandy spectrum was Andre Benjamin, or Andre3000 of OutKast fame, with his unique preppy meets vintage, meets cool, meets elegance look.  And who could forget Fonzworth Bentley, the tailored-suit wearing, umbrella toting valet of P Diddy’s who appeared in several music videos and made a name for himself as a dandy and master of etiquette?   Bentley, who was born into an upper middle-class Atlanta family and grew up playing the violin and attending Moorehouse College, nonetheless became a hip-hop icon.  Ms. Miller seems to feel, though, there is a segment of the black community that see Bentley’s more recent conservative views and his placing the blame for the woes of young black men on old hip-hop culture , while desiring to teach them how to dress, behave and “get ahead,” may not be so helpful.

This was also the era of dandyism meets global consumption.  There was Sean Jean.  There was Jay Z and Pharrell Williams with their fashion labels.  Before them, early hip-hop producer and entrepreneur, Russell Simmons created the Phat Farm brand after re-imagining the preppy, luxury life-style of the Hamptons that Ralph Lauren first created.

Yet, and this is where the talk which has interested me from the very beginning, begins to gel; to all come together.  Ms. Miller brings us back to the bigger ideal and thread that there is fashion, and then there is style.  While these men’s businesses may be to a certain extent about fashion, the source of black men’s dress over the years in regards to dandyism, is about style.  It is a personal style based on black dignity.  The clothing is not about mimicking the fashion of white patriarchy.  It is about dressing for each other.  It is about pride.

It is here where we get to history and context.  Ms. Miller goes back to the definition of a fop: a man who is concerned with his clothes and appearance in an affected and excessive way vs. a dandy: a man who strives to dress elegantly with a careful attention to self-presentation.

She speaks of when slaves arrived on American shores and were given one piece of rudimentary clothing.  The question they asked in order to restore some sense of dignity, of identity was:  What can we do with this to make it ours?  And, that is where re-imagining and possibilities in self-presentation began.  She speaks of how dandyism was first forced on black boy servants of slave masters, and how young black dandies began to tweak their style to make it their own.

Ms. Miller noted that when some slaves were freed or ran away to freedom, they absconded some of their owner’s clothing so that they would “look free” once they reached northern states.  She spoke of a special celebration that I hadn’t heard about, a carnival celebration where black slaves switched clothes with slave owners and paraded down streets one day a year, in mockery of white power.

She states, when people wonder why members of the black community spend hundreds of dollars on designer sneakers and other high-priced clothing items, it is because for black people, clothing is the most important way for them to express affluence, and identity.

In closing, Ms. Miller left us with the current black dandyism scene–a look at black male street fashion, that is starting to tell yet another story.  A style that is a mix of high-fashion, and vintage, of Gap, and African, Carribbean and Western looks.  A style that is a mode of inquiry and critique in a post civil-rights, post Reagan Bush, post Obama era.  A style that blends, racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation lines.  She notes the blog, Street Etiquette, as a place that archives and writes about this new era of self-defined black male dandyism.

And she left us with this to consider, a line that the Athenaeum’s Director of Programs and Public Engagement, Christina Bevilaqua, quoted from Proust in her introduction of Ms. Miller:  “Reality has nothing to do with possibilities.”

I look forward to reading Ms. Miller’s book. While I could only touch upon the highlights here of her talk, I know the book will  enlighten me, giving me a closer look to the history of black dandyism, and the beautiful possibilities that have come to light these past few centuries, as black men re-imagined their own possibilities and identity through the creation of their unique personal style and self-presentation.


Fresh Dressed Like A Million Bucks:  A Cultural History of Black Dandyism, by Monica L. Miller, Duke University Press, 2009




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