Book Review: Dandy Lion

There are so many different kinds of dandyism. Most books on dandies attempt to suggest they are all of many conflicting concepts of the word, so that the very least of the dandies they feature is not just an eccentric who fetishizes dressing well, but also, supposedly, a political revolutionary, an intellectual incendiary, and a retrograde elegant gentleman to (champagne-polished) boot. Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Styleby Shantrelle P. Lewis, is not one of those books. 

Lewis asserts that the dandies in her book, a varied group, represent a particular group of “dapper agitators.” Their dress, all variants on tailored clothing rather than streetwear, reflects a balance between survival wear – the clothing styles of an overclass, rather than the hoodies in which black children are murdered with impunity – and provocation – through the appropriation of that wear by the stigmatized or powerless, and the assertion of individuality in daring colors or styles. Or indeed through daring elegance.

Like most dandies in other recent books, Dandy Lion could trade on its looks, gorgeously shot images with deep colors and patterns, and that’s before we talk about what the featured models are wearing.  Indeed, recent books about new or unusual groups of dandies have had a winning formula that requires little more than color, exoticism, and the performative nattiness of their subjects. Sumptuous as Dandy Lion is, it doesn’t rest on its own lushness. Four sets of different profiles describe sartorial movements and happenings; individual dandies themselves; designers and tailors; and photographers.  Those sartorial movements range from the Khumbula and Sartists of South Africa, wrestling with postapartheid identity, to the obligatory Sapeurs of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, made famous in Daniele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongoto… the Washington, D.C. Tweed Ride, an African-American take on the bicycle rides launched by cosplayers in London. Dandies include the Islington Twins of the famous 1979 London photograph, along with Amar’e Stoudemire, the rapper Baloji, and Janelle Monáe (with a good explanation of her dandy politics).  Among the designers we find Ikiré Jones and, somewhat unavoidably, Ozwald Boateng of Savile Row, while the photographers include (along with the Dandy Lion photographers themselves), Osborne Macharia, who created a fictional series of photos of “The League of Extravagant Grannies of Kenya.” We also encounter Rose Callahan, who shot one of the first of these dandy catalogs, I Am Dandy, which gives the authors cause to include her photos of some of the better chosen subjects from that work, like Keith Churchwell and Barima Nyantekyi. 

But a summary can’t do this work credit. It is vital, extremely interesting and necessary, even if I hesitate to characterize these clothes as street style. The author has put forward her definition of a black dandyism, and collected and presented a fascinating set of figures from this world. This book is more than simply long-needed representation. It is new names, new perspectives, and images that can spur further discussion and investigation. We can remember that the what dandyism means changes and has changed over time, is not universal, and its practitioners heterogenous and evolving.

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