Dandy Lion begins with the first dandy Shantrelle P Lewis knew: her younger brother Stanford. His natty shirts and sharp suits are echoed throughout this book, which joyfully examines the global contemporary subculture of black dandy streetstyle.
The book began as a hugely successful exhibition curated by Lewis in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, but the project itself dates back to 2010 when she organised an photography exhibition in Harlem, New York, for photographers of African descent.
Dandy Lion adds a nuanced voice to the current public debate about black culture and its interaction with dominant systems of power. In a powerful introduction, Lewis writes of the radical and subversive gesture of a black man dressing up and blurring the boundaries of class, race and gender. The clothes black people wear, she argues, have always been seen in a political way and often appropriated by dominant white culture - see zoot suits and the Black Panther look. What makes the dandy different is that their clothes represent an appropriation of white Western culture, with Lewis defining a dandy as: “a gentleman who intentionally appropriates classical European fashion, but with an African diasporan aesthetic and sensibility.”
In the photographs that follow we see black men taking the smart suits, fedoras, sharp shirts and canes of an English gentleman and making them their own, in bright colours and clashing patterns. The diversity of the dandy is further celebrated in images of drag king dandies, female dandies and queer dandies. What I enjoyed about this book is that is seeks to be deliberately inclusive, looking away from just the States and the UK to dandy tribes across the world.
The first section of the book delves into dandy tribes across the world. We see Rude Boys in West London, La Sape in the Congo’s capital Brazzaville, and Social and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans - the latter organisations originally formed to pay for black funerals in the 1880s, but now function as spontaneous, street party organisers. Most tribes are small enough to belong to a neighbourhood, and yet the book emphasises the connections forged around the world through clothes, and the communities built by allegiances to fashion.
Following the section on tribes of dandies, we see specific people involved in the scene, with photographers and tailors. What strikes me is that though the book is focused on a style from the past - and the reason dandyism has become embedded in the cultures this book looks at is often to do with slavery, colonialism and migration - it is forward looking and resoundly optimistic. There are no historical photographs and the images and the stories behind them are about taking control, having pride and feeling good in your skin.
There are only a few moments when Dandy Lion falls down. I found the stark negative comparison between dandyism and hip-hop influenced streetwear not entirely productive or convincing. Alongside this, the photographs, seen alone without textual context, are not entirely groundbreaking - although this is likely down to the constraints of ‘street style’ photography, which can be limiting. However, the book should be seen as a joyful, colourful and happy celebration of the diversity of the black dandy community, rather than a pure ‘photography’ book. Taken as a whole, Dandy Lion is a wonderful record of a different kind contemporary culture made by young black people, for themselves.
Images from Dandy Lion (Aperture, 2017), courtesy of Aperture.
Dandy Lion by Shantrelle P. Lewis is published by Aperture, May 2017 in English. Hardcover, full colour images. 144 pages.