Tag Archives: dandyism

VINTAGE POLITICS: The Awl’s “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green'”


Awl writer Cord Jefferson just penned an incredibly thoughtful piece on the phenomenon of “nu prep” or what passes for “classic Americana” in men’s style. In “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green,'” Jefferson wonders what to make of garments whose appeal is narrated through unsubtle references to histories of racial degradation and economic privilege — Ralph Lauren Polo’s “old money green” chinos, J. Crew’s “plantation madras” button-down, and J. Peterman’s “owner’s hat” (the copy for which reads, “Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation”).* Jefferson ends his piece:

I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod’s driving moccasins. I even like “Nantucket red” pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa’s favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they’re also rooted in grandpa’s stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone’s heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, “I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries.”

The piece is hilariously tagged with: “PLANTATIONS?, SOLID EUROPEAN STOCK, THE NEW NICE RACISM, WHITE PEOPLE THINGS.”

Referentiality –or knowing what cluster of ideas we refer to when we say “old money,” for instance– is an unstable thing. Does aestheticization deracinate a plantation history, or merely insist that such a history does not matter? For what might an “owner’s hat” be nostalgic, if nostalgia is the modern phenomenon of borrowing a “lost” sentiment or sensibility from the past for present usage? What does it mean to apprehend or be attached to something understood as lost, when the spatial or temproal dimensions of that loss cannot help but include chattel slavery or colonial racial rule? The dead do not stay down while their clothes come forward.

That said, how do we track their ghostly traces across living bodies which may or may not match their original wearers? One commentator suggests that despite the advertising copy, the circuitous routes some blue-blood dress styles take interrupt their straightforward claims to colonial privilege: “Also: can’t we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a ‘black’ style, which itself was an appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world?”

As black style becomes global style, does the appropriation and revision of fancy clothes produce another historical consciousness, another origin story, for these dress styles? Consider the sartorial performances of the immaculately attired Andre 3000, the calculated precision of the self-fashioning Fonzworth Bentley. We might also recall Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion, in which she argues black dandyism “makes both subtle and overt challenges and capitulations to authoritative aesthetics.” Miller suggests, “Dandies are not always the wealthiest, but they aspire to other things and show that existing hierarchies can be broken. It’s about making something out of nothing.”

So does the meaning of a garment emerge from consumers’ usage, or from its conditions of manufacture, both ideological and material? In response to a commentator’s smart observation that “I would pause before associating Japanese fandom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes,” Jefferson clarifies:

Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It’s very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2010/02/15/las-vegas/), because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the ’50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.

While these garments’ manufacture is new, some of the questions I asked earlier of vintage politics seem relevant here.

What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

As Jefferson points out, the evaluation and preservation of a beautiful item from another time and place might easily slide into the evaluation and preservation of an associated (terrible, no-good) ideal. Nostalgia for a particular era or its sensibility can become dangerous, especially when such a sensibility might include qualifiers such as “dignity” or “freedom,” “classiness” or “old-school glamour,” which are also shifting measures of human value. (Consider some of the nostalgic remarks about “respectability” here.) But the adaptation of these dress styles can also fashion defiance, marking the ruin of these eras in these styles’ unruly revisions by those once denied their wearing.

Perhaps we must distinguish between the meanings that self-fashioning persons assign their clothes, and the meanings that lend a bloody social life to things like an “owner’s hat.” They may overlap; they may not. I think that there’s no coming down on one side or the other here: it’s a “both”/”and more” situation.

* Okay, J. Peterman is crazy nuts. So many of the “men’s things” are accompanied by nostalgic remembrances of multiple imperial moments. The “19th-Century British Dhobi Kit” is described thusly: “The British called them ‘dhobi’ after the ‘wash boys’ that they hired by the hundreds in Burma, Madras and the Punjab. They became such a necessity that viceroys, governors-general and trade ministers had them handmade in London before heading off to postings in the far reaches of the British Empire…. The perfectly civilized way to start your day – no matter where you find yourself. Imported.”

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Radio Silence + Some Noise

Apologies for the recent radio silence — I’m suffering a terrific head cold as well as ever-anxious anticipation for my manuscript workshop this week. Being ill has been something of a relief, quite frankly, as it feels like a legitimate reason to stop working for at least a little while. (Or to do other work, though I have my cat Morton to do my laundry for me!) I’ve actually taken a bit of a break from the Internets –except for vintage shopping on Etsy!– but here are a few things I’ve enjoyed reading in the last week or so, while Minh-Ha has been on a research trip.

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Queer novelist and performer Michelle Tea is blogging for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now, and in her latest missive she ponders the return of possibly regrettable fashions past:

I don’t know if I am ready for creepers to make a comeback, even in the form of a boot, even if the boot comes with a leather faux-sock poking over the top, even and especially if it comes hung with a couple of decorative boot-belts. And even if they are designed by Alexander Wang. But you know, even as I type this, looking at the boots in their buttery lighting at Barneys, where they live, I am starting to have second thoughts. Maybe they are actually the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes being repulsed by a piece of fashion is a signal that I’m about to be obsessed with it.

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It seems that the Internets is spitting up reflections on the impact of fashion bloggers these days (we’re no exception), especially with Style Rookie Tavi’s skyrocketing interplanetary profile as both model and muse. Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion offers this new social media reality check to industry insiders, while Evil Monito’s Lindsey Ibarra chimes in with some thoughts on the increasingly blurred divisions between insider/outsider status, as well as shifting measures of expertise, especially apparent as amateur fashion bloggers appear to replace professional stylists:

As the fashion blogosphere has grown it’s become packed with new voices, talents and faces. Through its evolution it has become clear that in order to be a valid blogger one must be a visible blogger and in turn the World Wide Web has been flooded with boys and girls eager to show themselves off to the rest of the world. No longer is it just about the clothing; suddenly it’s also about a face wearing the clothing, and yet I suppose in some ways it always has been. When supermodels ruled the world their faces were just as important (if not more so) as the clothing they were modeling but the added element of worldwide exposure at the click of a button has created an entire generation of “I’m famous on the Internet” icons.

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Next, there be black dandies all over! Jezebel covers the recent release of photographer Daniele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo, documenting the phenomenon of sapeurs, or the Congolese subculture of dandies. I’d been worrying at this postcolonial knot of politics and desires since I read a few months earlier Patty Chang’s review at Fashion Projects of George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary The Importance of Being Elegant. Chang’s comments are insightful:

Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip hop. The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures. Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture. The inherent paradoxes of poor unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this.

Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests. Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths. Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance. In addition, the acronym la Sape plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and absence from using hard drugs. Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’. Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance. In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate. Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.

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And finally, Fashion for Writers is on some kind of posting roll with wonderful prose and lovely photographs. I’m inspired, though not enough to get dressed in something besides yoga pants and my old Maximumrocknroll t-shirt right now. Damn this cold! I will just have to heal in the warm glow of the Kate Bush Dance Troupe!

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PUBLICATION: Monica Miller on Slaves To Fashion

Duke University Press’s new release, Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, promises to appear on all my future syllabi, no matter the course. Read Miller’s illuminating essay about the book’s core concepts and their development at Rorotoko, an online venue for engaging authors and ideas in intellectual nonfiction. Below is a long excerpt to whet your appetite:

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.

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