What makes a dandy? A perfectly fitting suit and glossy brogues? Flamboyant detailing and accessories that nod to Edwardian decadence? Or is it a certain swagger: the need to rebel and to be seen doing so? And, if all that’s true, how do those ideas shift when the dandy is black, a woman – or both?
These are the questions posed by The Dandy Lion Project, an exhibition of 150 images by over thirty international photographers to make its European debut at the Brighton Photo Biennial in October, which depict black, mainly male, dandies from London to Kenya in their finery. But it’s the female dandies adorned or contrasting to the trappings of masculinity that are the most intriguing.
Understated monochrome shots by South African artist Harness Hamese show female dandies in feminine clothing standing out beside their male counterparts. Then there’s Adrian Octavius Walker’s portraits of the Museum of African Diaspora director Linda Harrison and entrepreneur Holley Murchison, which capture their androgynous spirits. But the most striking are Osborne Macharia’s ‘granny dandies’. The “ordinary women” chosen by Macharia are shown styled as jet-setting CEOs and government officials in slick, modern menswear, beside vintage aircrafts. In one, a woman with a grey pompadour stares arrestingly. The tweed jacket draped around her shoulders clashes with her paisley neckerchief and baggy checked red shirt. Another with clipped grey hair, sporting mirrored sunglasses and a polka dot tie, grasps a fat cigar and holds an expression like she has been rudely interrupted. The deep furrows in their faces hint of grit and adventure. “The entire project was all for entertainment, no political socio-economic or cultural agenda, just entertainment,” says Macharia of his fictional dandies.
But it’s tough not to see them as a comment on the invisibility of older women in popular culture. And all these images echo the theories of the eighteenth century dandy and civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois, who wrote of how black people experience a double consciousness in always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. Or the black feminism of Alice Walker, who spoke out against the layers of prejudice that African American women have to contend with. Judith Butler’s ideas that gender is all just a big performance are suggested, too.
After all, dandies have been all about rebellion and prodding social norms since the archetype Beau Brummel and his fellow Regency fops stuck two fingers up at the accepted male silhouette with their colourful, padded clothes. Since then, these achingly stylish creatures have had many incarnations: from the dark suits cut close to the body in the 1830s, to the aesthetics of artists and writers of the late nineteenth century, and the working and lower-middle class dandies of the twentieth century who picked from subcultures and contemporary fashion to combine tailoring with flamboyance, explains Dr Royce Mahawatte, a dandy expert and lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins university. Simply put, says Mahawatte, dandyism is about power dressing, or “empowering dressing”, and the norms being challenged depend on the wearer.
Dr Sunday Swift, Associate Lecturer English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University who writes on female dandyism for The Chap magazine, goes one step further to suggests that the movement isn’t really about clothing at all, but attitude. It all comes down to balancing an appearance of control and a disregard for interior substance, a strong ego, witty originality, ambivalence towards gender, excess and rebellion all for maximum visual impact. The trick is to objectify oneself while being in total control of one’s image. And as women are more objectified than men, female dandyism can be tricky to spot but all the more powerful when she is. It’s hard to deny that French writer Charles Baudelaire, British Afro-Caribbean fop Julius Suboise, late singer David Bowie, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Hollywood actresses Marline Dietrich and Tilda Swinton can, therefore, all qualify as dandies.
Black dandyism, then, combines these ideas with devastating impact. “It uses the suit, flamboyance and tailoring to give the black body expression, play and visibility. It allows an escape from regulating class structures and social restrictions due to racism,” says Royce.
Fighting prejudice is as important as ever, believes Shantrelle Lewis, the curator of the Dandy Lion Project, who cites that a black man, woman or child is executed by police or security personnel in the US every 28 hours on average: a crisis that has given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lewis started the project in the autumn of 2010 out of “necessity”, because she saw that, despite the success of musicians like Jay-Z and Kanye West, black men were being misrepresented in mainstream western media. She felt “exasperated” by a relentless narrative of gangs, violence, caricatures, and a “grotesque and glorified” version of masculinity promoted by hip-hop.
“Whether wearing a hoodie or an Ozwald Boateng suit, black men and women deserved to be seen for their humanity. The African diasporan dandy cleverly manipulates clothing and attitude to exert his agency rather than succumb to the limited ideals placed on him by society.”
As she curated the exhibition aimed at challenging the views of masculinity the idea that Blackness is homogenous, and highlighting interconnectedness of traditions from the streets of New Orleans to the Sapeurs of Brazzaville, she realised that women dandies couldn’t be ignored. She now hopes to include trans men, too. Each black dandy further illustrates the reality of a non-monolithic global Black community, she says.
“Masculine of centre women (the term used to describe women who are masculine in how they present themselves) face just as much if not more harassment by police as cis-gender men. This harassment is oftentimes linked with dress codes and for someone women, dandyism is a reaction to that level of gender violence.”
So, whether they are sporting a natty tie, a shaved head, or vintage tea dress, if dandyism is about style and rebellion the women in the Dandy Lion Project are at the vanguard.
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