Art

Identity and the Rise of Dandyism, From Congo to Kyoto

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“Dandyism,” wrote Charles Baudelaire in 1860, “is not…an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” Still, when most people think of dandies, they picture the finery sported by an Oscar Wilde or a Beau Brummell: dashing denizens of the British Isles with carnations in their buttonholes and natty, impeccably cut suits. These figures are patrician in manner and appearance, if not by birth, and they are usually — at least in the popular imagination — white.

But that’s changing. From East L.A.’s zoot-suit riots of the Forties to the more recent flowering of dandy culture in West Africa, the “rich Western European white male” definition is coming to seem increasingly outdated. The past few years have seen everyone from the Wall Street Journal and CNN to Russia Today profile the “Sapeurs” of Congo, a group of young men in poverty-stricken Brazzaville who go to financial extremes to dress in peacock-bright, tailored suits. A 2015 exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity,” surveyed prominent black dandies around the world, exploring how its subjects mashed up Victorian-era sartorial tradition with African textiles and patterns to create a totally contemporary, quietly subversive picture of black masculinity.

And in January 2017, photographer Rose Callahan and writer Nathaniel Adams, the team behind 2013’s I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman, will release their latest chronicle of the world of dandy fashion. We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World expands the pair’s focus beyond the global fashion capitals of New York, Paris, and London, profiling dandies as far afield as Johannesburg and Tokyo.

Dandyism outside the confines of Western Europe, Adams tells me, often involves blending the “traditional” British dandy look — ascots, pocket squares, waistcoats — with a more local aesthetic. In Johannesburg, he says, where rag-picking markets are ubiquitous and many residents wear “vintage” — used — clothes out of economic necessity, a retro-inspired look can be a kind of reclamation.

“In New York, when people wear vintage, it’s often from a specific era, they’re interested in authenticity, and there are specific icons like Fred Astaire or the Duke of Windsor,” Adams says. “[The guys we profile] were dressing vintage because they were forced to.” Dandies like Johannesburg’s Tony Maake or cousins Mpumelelo and Ntabso Sojane (both profiled in We Are Dandy) often buy used clothes — shipped from Europe in pay-by-weight bales — from local markets, only to have them meticulously tailored and remade (or do the tailoring themselves) in the style of Savile Row. It’s also, Callahan notes, a political statement: Under apartheid, many young black Africans wouldn’t have had access to the kinds of clothes and styles they choose to wear today. “It’s the world their parents never had,” Adams says.

Sometimes, of course, the politics of dandyism can be more complicated. Adams points to the example of Tokyo’s Makoto Iida, whose preference for 1930s suits — harking back to the heyday of Japanese imperialism — has drawn the ire of those who assume he’s sympathetic to that ethos. But, Adams says, Iida always “talks about how one of the things he loves about that era was the blending of Western and Eastern cultures.” Iida, Adams tells me, attends regular afternoon social dances with like-minded aficionados — “all the women in vintage kimonos, all the men in vintage suits, which was the norm in the Twenties and Thirties. He felt that Japanese youth are losing touch with their tradition and past — which is interesting, because he’s sitting there in a three-piece English suit. But for him, that’s part of [Japanese] history.”

Ultimately, for Adams and Callahan alike, global dandyism is about more than just a well-tailored suit. “All over the world,” Callahan says, “there was this natural diversity of people. If you look at men who are just obsessed with elegance, it’s not that they adhere to a particular style, just wearing vintage clothes or bespoke or [historical] cosplay. They have a particular sensibility that goes beyond cultures.”

Elegance, wit, and style — these things, Adams and Callahan agree, are universal.

We Are Dandy

Photographs by Rose Callahan, Text by Nathaniel Adams

304 pp.

Gestalten Books

$60

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