When Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator and author of the new book Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style, was growing up in New Orleans, she had certain sartorial assumptions that life outside the Crescent City would prove wrong.
First, Lewis assumed that Black gentlemen with a level of ambition knew how to dress the part. This was the norm in her own family and social circle, with their deep roots in New Orleans and its historic community of free people of color, where people had the fortune to possess abundant old photos documenting generations of refinement.
As teenagers, Lewis and her friends judged potential suitors by their shoes. “If they didn’t have on Ballys, Kenneth Coles, Guccis, we weren’t dating them,” she says. “I would give guys my number based on the shoes they wore.” But when she got to Howard University, in Washington, D.C., she was dismayed by the prevailing standards at that historic temple of Black aspiration. “I saw men wearing 3X T-shirts, rocking Tims, and I was confused. Like, who dresses like this?”
Another truth Lewis only grasped after she began to travel was that Black elegance came in many vocabularies, not just the New Orleans vernacular with its Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs — organizers of swank community events and second-line parades — and its Creole bourgeoisie. A vast diaspora of swagger awaited: the sapeurs of Congo; subversions of aristocratic fashion by Black European dandies; nostalgic or futuristic stylings from Johannesburg to Jamaica. There were as many Black aesthetics as there were ways of being Black. “My understanding of the diaspora and streams of Blackness did not exist in New Orleans,” Lewis says. “I had no idea.”
Lewis, 38, has devoted her career to expanding Black representation, first at museums in Philadelphia and New Orleans, then at New York’s Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), where she ran programs from 2009 to 2013 before going independent. As a curator, she has mostly organized shows that have a political or social resonance. One show at CCCADI, for instance, featured artists working in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Another, at the Skylight Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2011, featured ten Black women artists working on themes of sexual violence; it was titled, bluntly, “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls.” Other topics have ranged from Haitian Vodou to art responding to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Earlier this year, she curated a show of art inspired by Hoodoo, the Southern Black tradition of folk spirituality, at the Chelsea and Philadelphia locations of the Rush Arts Gallery.
Her travels have taken her to much of the Black world — including the Caribbean, West Africa, and African communities in Europe. On a trip to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, she became drawn to the Yoruba religious tradition that is practiced there in the form of Candomblé, and in Cuba under the name Santería. She continued her studies under a Yoruba religious house in Brooklyn, and is now an ordained priest. An interest in the Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean sparked her forthcoming documentary that examines Zwarte Piet — the winter tradition in which white people wear blackface — and the battle of Black activists to change it. She is now based in Philadelphia, where she has kept a home since earning her master’s degree in African-American studies from Temple University.
But the core fiber of Lewis’s work for the last seven years — since she put out a call to photographers to shoot images of dapper men for a 2010 show in a Harlem pop-up space — has been masculine style. Under the title “Dandy Lion,” the group exhibitions of photography that she has curated on the subject have traveled to museums across the U.S. and Europe, and works from them appeared in the 2016 Brighton Photo Biennial in the U.K. Along the way, the project has accumulated artists, subjects, and locations, and broadened to embrace trans, queer, and masculine-of-center identities.
The Dandy Lion book, out last week from Aperture, the New York photography foundation and press, is the project’s culmination and its most extensive iteration. The book is a visual manifesto that highlights the dandy as a kind of fashion griot, with portraits of eighteen clotheshorses from around the Black world. Some are familiar, such as former Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire, or musicians Jidenna, Leon Bridges, and Janelle Monáe. Others may be less well-known: the British-Nigerian Islington Twins, Namibia’s Loux the Vintage Guru, the New York trans activist Tiq Milan.
But Dandy Lion is more than a handsome lookbook. Each dandy receives a brief essay by Lewis, as do other subjects including social scenes that define themselves through fashion (sapeurs, U.K. rude boys, style-focused digital communities); designers and tailors such as Ozwald Boateng, the first Black designer with a shop on London’s Savile Row; and of course, the photographers at the core of the project. Some of these are documentary photographers who spot Black elegance in the street, such as Brooklyn’s Russell Frederick or Newark’s Akintola Hanif. Others are art photographers who foment it in the studio, such as Senegal’s Omar Victor Diop or Morocco’s Hassan Hajjaj, who contributes an eye-popping cover portrait. A few, such as New Orleans photographer L. Kasimu Harris, are dapper dressers themselves, and appear as both artist and subject.
In its diversity of viewpoints, the book makes the implicit argument that Black style is not just an individual matter, but a community — and a global one at that, in which Instagram and e-commerce have broadened the arena of exchange and the reach of that powerful force, Black mutual recognition. “The nod across the room has become the nod across the world,” says Dandy Wellington, a New York jazz bandleader featured in the book. Wellington, who favors Edwardian to Swing Era looks, says dandyism is a personal commitment for him, to the point of putting it in his name. “There are people who wear clothes and people who live the clothes they wear,” he says. “I think of what I want to leave the house in, not where I am going.”
The political subtext of Dandy Lion is difficult to miss. The figure of the Black dandy goes back centuries and is connected to colonial social relations; one study, Slaves to Fashion, by the Barnard College professor Monica L. Miller, traces the phenomenon to African servants in the era of the slave trade, forced by European owners to dress extravagantly. By conforming to high European style norms in some ways while disrupting them in others — whether through bold color, unorthodox combinations, or African fabrics and accessories — the Black dandy subverts the whole system of colonialism, enslavement, and discrimination, and gender norms.
This makes him a liberation figure. “The Black dandy is a trickster figure, a dapper agitator,” Lewis writes in her introduction, “…similar to the masquerading traditions of West Africa, where individuals are transformed into otherworldly beings.”
Yet despite this freeing potential, negative visual stereotypes of Black men remain standard in America. A trigger for the project, Lewis says, was the 2008 Vogue cover by Annie Leibovitz that posed a scowling LeBron James holding Gisele Bündchen in a stance that seemed lifted from King Kong. “Those images recycle these negative tropes of the thug, the gangster.” She believes many Black men have internalized this dismissal, particularly since hip-hop style lost its creative edge in the early 1990s. “Hip-hop dress got co-opted, and it began getting connected to the prison-industrial complex,” she says. “Everything became sagging and white Ts. The lumpenproletariat is no longer using Black dress as resistance.” She rebuts the idea that she is merely reinforcing respectability politics. “I see dressing up as oppositional,” she says.
“Shantrelle made us stop and smell the roses, and show the world another side of Black men,” says Frederick, who has documented Black life in Bedford-Stuyvesant for two decades and was involved in “Dandy Lion” from its first iteration. “Her book comes from a loving place. It’s really an ode to Black men.”
Last summer, Lewis completed her time as an iyawó, a new initiate to Lukumi Yoruba priesthood, a twelve-month process during which she could wear only white, could not look in mirrors (no selfies!), could not be touched by strangers, and in theory had to stay off social media. It was a complex challenge for a curator busy touring an exhibition while also putting together her first book and planning her wedding.
“I came out of my initiation and it was like boom!” Lewis says. Being dedicated to Shango, the orisha of justice, only adds to her sense of mission. “It’s my responsibility as a priest of Shango to bring justice forth for my people. If my work is not connected to the liberation of Black people, then I’m not doing something right.”
Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style is published by Aperture.
CORRECTION: The print version of this story attributed Annie Leibovitz’s LeBron-Gisele cover to Vanity Fair; it was, in fact, the cover of an issue of Vogue to which we were referring. The Voice regrets the error.