Black Dandy, The

views updated

Black Dandy, The

The history of black style's most famous figure, the dandy, strikingly chronicles the sometimes exuberant, sometimes tortured relationship between dress and identity for black people. Although dandies are best known in Western high culture as fashionably dressed aesthetes, well-tailored but morally bankrupt aristocrats, or bohemian conversational wits, when racialized as black, however, their extravagant bodily display changes supposed frivolity into a mode of social, cultural, and political critique.

Black Codes of Mississippi (1865)

Apprentice Law

Section 3

Be it further enacted, that in the management and control of said apprentices, said master or mistress shall have power to inflict such moderate corporeal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law:

Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted.

Section 4

Be it further enacted, that if any apprentice shall leave the employment of his or her master or mistress without his or her consent, said master or mistress may pursue and recapture said apprentice and bring him or her before any justice of the peace of the county, whose duty it shall be to remand said apprentice to the service of his or her master or mistress; and in the event of a refusal on the part of said apprentice so to return, then said justice shall commit said apprentice to the jail of said county, on failure to give bond, until the next term of the county court; and it shall be the duty of said court, at the first term thereafter, to investigate said case; and if the court shall be of opinion that said apprentice left the employment of his or her master or mistress without good cause, to order him or her to be punished, as provided for the punishment of hired freedmen, as may be from time to time provided for by law, for desertion, until he or she shall agree to return to his or her master or mistress:

Provided, that the court may grant continuances, as in other cases; and provided, further, that if the court shall believe that said apprentice had good cause to quit his said master or mistress, the court shall discharge said apprentice from said indenture and also enter a judgment against the master or mistress for not more than $100, for the use and benefit of said apprentice, to be collected on execution, as in other cases.

Black dandyism originated with the beginning of European exploration of Africa. As early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, young children from Africa, primarily boys, were imported to Europe by the elite as a special kind of servantas "luxury" slaves. This trend of keeping young Africans as pets, dressing them up in elaborate liveries and sometimes educating them and training them to be companions, became even more popular later during British control of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. These dandified blacks came to understand and take advantage of their status as social spectacles: Some of them became celebrities whose fame confused their status as inhuman chattel; others, after a time as luxury slaves, became early members of the free black British community. Due to their spectacularity, these blacks also became a part of literary and visual culture, becoming characters on the stage and also the subject of paintings, prints, and political cartoons that sometimes valorized and sometimes criticized the wealthy who tried to domesticate black people by means of elaborate dress. This practice gave the enslaved and free working blacks a strategy with which to define their own identity: the pointed redeployment of clothing, gesture, and wit.

As Europe colonized the Americas, the black dandy took on another set of meanings because the conditions of enslavement were very different. In Europe, dandified slaves had for the most part lived with masters in individual households, making their "masquerade" as elites much easier to manage. In the Americas, especially by the nineteenth century, most slaves experienced slavery in larger groups on farms and plantations, making this play with dress and status much more anxiety producing. Blacks in fancy dress in the American colonial period therefore could either be a part of the luxury slave tradition or participate in African-derived carnivalesque class and race cross-dressing festivals in which slaves and free people wore their master's clothing, symbolizing a temporary, joyous power exchange. Later, especially right before abolition, they could be slaves who managed to barter for or buy clothing for special occasions (Sunday, weddings, festivals) or newly free, urban blacks striving to present themselves with dignity and self-respect on the streets. None of this black play with clothing went unnoticed, for in different ways it threatened the status quo and evidenced a black creativity and resilience. The dandyism on display allowed blacks and whites to imagine the potential of the enslaved, to visualize black social and economic mobility, education, and equality. These thoughts were so threatening for the majority that repressing them became a national concern. During the nineteenth century, the most popular form of entertainment was the blackface minstrel show that featured the denigration of its two principal characters: the plantation darky and the black dandy, who was incompletely educated, sexually promiscuous, greedy, scheming, and ostentatiously dressed.

When African Americans began to have more control over their representation in literature and visual culture, the blackface dandy caricature and its imputation of African-American intelligence, masculinity, moral character, and even aesthetic sense became a primary target for reform. Writers such as Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, and others interested in presenting images of "New Negroes" created characters whose elegant outward appearance communicated the respectability, dignity, wisdom, and righteousness they knew to be characteristic of black life. This effort to present new, more realistic, idealized, or self-fashioned images flowered in the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance, when there was an explosion of new black style both on the streets and in literature, artwork, and theater. This increased concentration on black images and style even took dandyism in a number of directions: Many groups began to use elegant, fancy, fashionable, or distinctive clothing to announce their presence on the world's stage. People perceived as dandies could be found in literary salons, onstage in the musical Chocolate Dandies,

parading down Harlem's Seventh Avenue or Chicago's Stroll, in the audience at Small's Paradise, sitting for portraits in James Van Der Zee's studio, or as audience and participants at Harlem's famous drag balls. Despite the many ways one could identify or define a dandy during this era, the figure still came up for censure as debates raged concerning the effectiveness of image in the quest for civil and political rights. These debates continue today.

In the later twentieth century, black dandies and dandyism have taken even more forms, as, for example, the entertainment industry has come to rely on and be fueled by the evolution of black style, especially black musical and dress styles. Entertainers as diverse as Duke Ellington, Little Richard, Prince, Snoop Dog, and Andre 3000 of Outkast are considered dandies. In the twenty-first century, dandyism has taken an interesting new turn as hip-hop moguls, such as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, have themselves become designers and CEOs of fashion houses that produce urban looks as well as bespoke suits that are sold internationally. As black style becomes more and more mainstream and media driven, initiating new conversations about the relationship between blackness, masculinity, sexuality, cosmopolitanism, and consumption, black dandyism's next step is uncertain; what is guaranteed is that whatever form it takes, the "look" will be illustrative of current black consciousness concerning identity.

See also Free Blacks 16191860; Identity and Race in the United States; Representations of Blackness


Foster, Helen Bradley. "New Raiments of 'Self": African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. New York and Oxford: Berg, 1997.

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. Black London: Life before Emancipation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Tulloch, Carol, ed. Black Style. London: V & A Publications, 2004.

White, Graham and Shane. Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

monica l. miller (2005)