Some Thoughts From Monica Miller about Black Dandyism

There is no Tuesday pre-class student post today! However, I wanted to offer some further thoughts on Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, from Monica Miller’s illuminating essay about the book’s core concepts and their development at Rorotoko. Below is a long excerpt to contextualize the development of the book and its arguments. You may comment to this for this week.

Slaves to Fashion began with a footnote I encountered in graduate school. While auditing a class on W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, I came across a troubling reference to the fact that the revered Du Bois had been caricatured as a black dandy. In the class, we spent even weeks in detailed analysis of Du Bois’s skill as a rhetorician and lyricist. In order to appreciate the truly interdisciplinary nature of his talents, we took very seriously his training as a philosopher, historian and sociologist. The image of Du Bois that emerged was that of an erudite, punctilious, quintessential “race man.” None of this prepared me for the footnote and accompanying illustration from a political cartoon of Du Bois as a degraded buffoon, overly dressed and poorly comported, whose erudition had been turned into what the cartoon called “ebucation.”

Only when I began to research the history of dandyism and, in particular, the racialization of the dandy figure, did I realize the complex strategy and history behind that caricature. Dandyism has been used by Africans and blacks to project images of themselves as dignified and distinguished, it has also been used by the majority culture (and blacks) to denigrate and ridicule black aspirations. Slaves to Fashion examines the interrelatedness of these impulses and what the deployment of one strategy or the other says about the state of black people and culture at different moments in history.

Although dandyism is often considered a mode of extremely frivolous behavior attentive only to surfaces or facades and a practice of the white, European elite and effete, I argue that it is a creative and subtle mode of critique, regardless of who is deploying it. Though often considered fools, hopelessly caught up in the world of fashion, dandies actually appear in periods of social, political and cultural transition, telling us much about cultural politics through their attitude and appearance. Particularly during times when social mores shift, style and charisma allow these primarily male figures to distinguish themselves when previously established privileges of birth and wealth, or ways of measuring social standing might be absent or uncertain. Style—both sartorial and behavioral— affords dandies the ability and power to set new fashions, to create or imagine worlds more suited to their often avant-garde tastes. Dandyism is thus not just a practice of dress, but also a visible form of investigating and questioning cultural realities.

Anyone can be in vogue without apparent strategy, but dandies commit to a study of the fashions that define them and an examination of the trends around—which they can continually re-define themselves. Therefore, when racialized, the dandy’s affectations (fancy dress, arch attitude, fey and fierce gesture) signify well beyond obsessive self-fashioning—rather, the figure embodies the importance of the struggle to control representation and self- and cultural-expression.

Manipulations of dress and dandyism have been particularly important modes of self-expression and social commentary for Africans before contact with Europeans and especially afterwards. In fact, in order to endure the attempted erasure or reordering of black identity in the slave trade and its aftermath, those Africans arriving in England, America, or the West Indies had to fashion new identities, to make the most out of the little that they were given. Whether luxury slaves or field hands, their new lives nearly always began with the issuance of new clothes.

Enslaved people, however, frequently modified these garments in order to indicate their own ideas about the relationship between slavery, servitude, and subjectivity. For example, there are documented cases of slaves saving single buttons and ribbons to add to their standard issue coarse clothing, examples of slaves stealing or “borrowing” clothing, especially garments made from fine fabrics, from their masters for special occasions. Slaves created underground second-hand clothing markets in major cities to augment their wardrobes and to exchange clothing that identified them when they wanted to escape. In fact, many slaves “dressed up” or “cross-dressed” literally when they absconded, wearing clothing beyond their station or of the other gender in efforts to appear free and be mobile. The black dandy’s style thus communicates simultaneously self-worth, cultural regard, a knowingness about how blackness is represented and seen. Black dandyism has been an important part of and visualization of the negotiation between slavery and freedom.


5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts From Monica Miller about Black Dandyism

  1. One of the most interesting points made in this post is the affirmation that while dandyism has been employed by Africans and blacks as a way to dignify and distinguish themselves, it has also been utilized by society as a way to belittle the ambitions of black people. Dandyism, therefore, is a complex concept with conflicting purposes and goals. Another interesting aspect of dandyism is the fact that it is often considered a “mode of extremely frivolous behavior attentive only to surfaces or facades and a practice of the white, European elite and effete.” This is of particular interest to me because I have heard similar comments made about the contemporary fashion industry and about fashion in general. In my perspective, those who are not invested or interested in fashion view it as a vain and frivolous entity. They also consider the behavior of those who are interested in fashion frivolous, which definitely has negative implications for those individuals. As someone who is interested in fashion, I can affirm that not every individual who follows fashion engages in frivolous behavior. I have always regarded fashion as a way to express creativity and individuality. Hence, I agree with the assertion that dandyism, along with fashion in general, “is a creative and subtle mode of critique.”

  2. Black dandyism is certainly a way to define themselves. As the article Crimes of Fashion states, “black dandyism was a practice that destabilized hierarchies of race and power” and a symbol of “self-conscious manipulation of authority” (81). Black dandyism allowed African Americans to define who they were/are and create a culture for themselves after being oppressed for several hundred years. African Americans were able to challenge the standard belief system of Americans. They challenged the hierarchies white people had socially created, and began to seep into it. The parodies of Black Dandies only strengthens the concept of the black dandy. When an idea or person is parodied, it is because the dominant culture feels threatened. The parody of the black dandy is an effort to break him down. The concept of black dandyism revolves around more than just dressing for fashion. It demonstrates an African American’s fight for equal social rights and an effort to create and intervene in the white culture.

  3. I find the most interesting concept in this post the dandyism is looked at as both degrading and uplifting at the same time. I believe this introduces a whole complicated and entangled concept to dandyism. This reminds me a lot about the struggle between the use of the “N” word in black culture. To some this work is uplifting and in, in a sense, taking back the word and at the same time if used by individuals outside of the black culture, the majority, it is looked at as degrading. In relationship to dandyism I believe this offers a complex idea of which idea of dandyism is being portrayed while talking about particular individuals. Perhaps this is where the idea that style-both sartorial and behavioral, creates images to the world that are suitable for the situation.

  4. What really struck me about this passage was the ending two paragraphs. I found it captivating that enslaved people would turn to fashion as a means of self expression and a form of black identity. It’s hard to imagine that when life is that difficult – being enslaved – that one would find comfort in manipulating clothing. It just shows how powerful of a tool that fashion can be. It has the ability to comfort and be an indicator of identity when there are little other ways to show off one’s sense of self and individuality. I would love to learn more about slaves creating underground second-hand clothing markets. I wonder how slaves had the ability to create such markets as I imagine the supplies would be hard to come across. And even if they were able to “borrow” and steal buttons and ribbons – would they be able to gather enough supplies to start a market? Either way, it shows the lengths individuals will go to in order to be able to express themselves in any way they can. I also find it enthralling when it says that many slaves would cross-dress. I wonder what it was about acting like a different gender that made them feel free. Perhaps dressing up as a gender that they did not identify with took them farther away from the lives they were living. Maybe it gave them comfort that they would one day escape the lives they had.

  5. I was really interested in black dandyism when we studied it in class. I have always found myself interested in the refined but also flamboyant way of dress that is portrayed by such figures as Andre 3000 and Fransworth Bently, but also by white figures.. such as Oscar Wilde and Chuck Bass from gossip girl. However, Despite race I would put all of these men into a category of the rich and elite which is expressed by their dress. I don’t think this is just me as I was searching websites on Dandy’s such as this one… on this site a dandy is described basically as an aristocrat. So it very interesting to learn how black dandyism evolved in class and I wonder if figures like Andre 3000 are aware of their relationship to this history of Dandyism. Is their way of dress, as they are now functioning as a black wealthy man, a way to reclaim dandyism? Learning about Black Dandyism makes me feel like figures like Andre 3000 are not as fashion forward as I thought, and I’m a bit annoyed by their choices now because of their access to wealth, despite their race. For example, Andre 3000 had a very exclusive line of clothing that only sold for a limited time at Barney’s New York. This seems to take away from the pell mell of clothing and reinvention of what was old as a way to talk back to the high class that dandyism once represented.

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