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THE DANDY LION: Dapper Dons

EXHIBIT: Dandy Lion: Articulating a Redefined Black Masculine Identity
DATES ON VIEW: January 29 – May 13, 2012
LOCATION: Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St Baltimore, MD 21202

Words: Marjua Estevez
Images: Courtesy of Shantrelle P. Lewis

In the midst of celebrating Black history this February, an exhibit that pays tribute to the contemporary, sophisticated styles of urban Black gentleman opens for viewing. Entitled Dandy Lion: Articulating a Redefined Black Masculine Identity, the traveling showcase unveils photos that break the long-held assumption that the “Black dress code” among inner-city constituents is only bound by a uniform of baggy jeans, exposed boxers, white tees and fitteds— a prejudice that has often confined Black male figures to a particular scene and projected onto them a negative value system that doesn’t quite cut the cloth.

Of course the exhibit addresses this, specifically, how many within the African diaspora are fed up with the consistent replaying (read: bashing) of stereotypical images of Black men today. What all will find most enlightening, however, is its exploration of modern style; its reinvention and evolution since the early days of the “Black Dandy”, a style made popular the turn of the 20th century, by the Black beau who placed particular importance upon his physical appearance, style and aesthetics.

Dandyism originally developed in London during the 18th century. Its unique sartorial style was made distinctive by lace ruffles, top hats, wigs, elegant embroidery, decorated footwear, and at times, even girdles to achieve the suave silhouette of a tighter waist wrapped in a frock coat. As told, dandy fashions gained fame in colonial America all the same. Since the beginning the melange of European fashions with African attire by the Black dandy figure has held special cultural significance. Like the stylized Harlem Renaissance prototypes, the Black Dandy has taken the form of an iconic character. And yet on the other hand, because he often alternates between the two polar styles of dress, the Black dandy also prides himself on being the juxtaposition of the status quo or marginal figures, much like the sapeurs of Central Africa, whom originated in the French-speaking Republic of the Congo way back when.

Christened befittingly as the Dandy Lion, the Black male fashionisto disregards all labels and is most interested in his own propensity to bring a nonchalant masculine flair to the forefront (read: Swag). Long gone are the days of crotch grabbin’, limp-walkin’ and jeans saggin’ hopes guest curator Shantrelle P. Lewis, who seeks “to add to an international discourse about the intersection of identity, masculinity and race and to a certain extent, sexuality via the exploration of self-fashioning men.”

Dr. Michelle Joan Wilkinson, director of collections and exhibitions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, where the exhibition is on display until May, lends deeper insight on the collection. “Curator Shantrelle P. Lewis shines a new light on traditions of self-fashioning that have been a core part of Black cultural expression. Her focus is not only ‘dandy’ aesthetics, but also on showing Black men as ‘lions’ who stand proud, regal, and in command of their domain.”

Dandy Lion made its debut last November at Society HAE in Harlem. It has since traveled to the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, and most recently, to Newark’s Aljira: A Center for Contemporary Art, before reaching the Reginald F. Lewis Museum just a few weeks ago. The installation features the most comprehensive list of photographers at the local, national and international level on the subject.

Dandy Lion is on view at Reginald F. Lewis Museum until May 13, 2012. For more information, please visit the museum’s site HERE.

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