Black Dandyism: Reflections on Images of Black Men

By: Nomonde Tshomi

Black dandyism is an uncanny form of protest against whiteness. It co-opts western images of civilisation in an environment that perceives itself as afrocentic. Often, it is also a class protest (as in some special cases, race and class cannot be used interchangeably): black men from working class backgrounds use this wealthy imagery in ways that they imagine give them dignity. Besides it being a fashion statement, it is driven by the understanding that society views black men as incapable of participating in a so-called “civilised” society.

Urban Dictionary defines a dandy as “a man who takes great care with his clothing and general appearance, especially one who is nonchalant in demeanor and (historically) tries to develop aristocratic hobbies, language, and honorable ideals.” Because western imperialism was a quest for global dominion; European culture became the marker of “civilization” and so in an attempt to be palatable to whiteness, black men (all over the world, truly) would be forced to dress in respectable ways. Assimilation is the name of the game.

“The Gentleman” is an aspirational identity for black men for they have been made hyper masculine by whiteness. From images of them as savages during colonial times to images of them as gangsters under apartheid; the image of “the gentleman” is not one that is an untainted that of blackness. In fact, Ghanian-British journalist Ekow Eshun claimed that “if you are a black man, you are judged on the basis of how you look” and for that reason that “good” dress is almost vital.

Cred: Pieter Hugo

Perhaps the first black dandies I ever encountered were the newly initiated Xhosa men who we know as amakrwala (although I don’t know how far to stretch this for they only dress formally for a while). When Xhosa boys become of age, they embark on an approximately four-week long journey into initiation into manhood. When they emerge, ready to face the world as men (however manhood has been taught to them there) they begin to dress formally.  These newly initiated men transition into this state of being a “gentleman” as they wear their Navada clothing; a hat and a suit to represent the idea that they have now become dignified men through Xhosa culture.

One thing noteworthy about the Afrodandy is his pride in his blackness. The activism that black men typically take against colonial images is the reinforcement of their native identities. We stubbornly attempt to hold onto our traditions, languages and anything else that we imagine the noble savage to look like. So it intrigues me that Afrodandies use western imagery.  Menzi Mcunu,  a young Afrodandy who is the founder of the lifestyle brand Afrocentric Gentlemvn based in Cape Town goes as far as describing his brand as “A luxury lifestyle brand that merges European Aesthetics and African elegance”. Perhaps this style is a marriage of western imperialism and Africanism?

Red once said that dandyism today is mainly respectability politics. “Black men attempting to portray themselves as respectable to whiteness.” I partially agree in that I wonder what changes when people want to play into western ideas of civilisation; when do black people get to be legitimated as human beings who should not have to perform? But I think dandyism is more complicated than that.

Cred: Modes of Public Transport in South Africa Photography by Jurie Senekal

Matt Masoma, a dandy himself, explained to me that for him dandyism started merely as a love for the art and fashion. “Black men don’t really dress like that all the time,” he said, “we dress up only for church or a date”. However, he explained that he and his fellow dandy friends realised that they could make an impact. This is how they arrived at making a dandy photo series titled “Modes of Public Transport in South Africa”. For Matt, it is a paradoxical tongue-in-cheek attitude. “Why are you dressed like a rich white man in a train?”. It seems then that it is an ironic celebration of the working-class experience for them. He commented on the misconception that dandyism is governed by consumerism, stating that “some of the suits we wear are R70 or less. You don’t have to go to a Hugo Boss shop to look dandy”. But he was also clear that dandyism is not easily accessible for poorer people, stating that “it’s hard to be poor and to be a dandy, I won’t lie”.

Afrodandyism is an intricate and controversial lifestyle, it is difficult to freeze it as arising out of the politics of deprivation, or as one’s attempt to distance oneself from the poverty of blackness, or even as an unnecessary flashiness. But one thing that Afrodandies seem to have in common is their pride in their blackness. And their identification as gentlemen.

 

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