The African American Dandy

Roland Barthes had this idea that fashion is a system and a symbolic system, built from different relationships and levels that housed individuals who gave these fashion objects their meaning.  He believed that we give these objects like a dress it’s meaning, the way we wear it, to how we act in it, or even how we may objectify it, is all giving meaning to a single piece of fabric.  Monica L. Miller, talks about how African American culture spread though out New York City in late 1910’s and throughout the 1920’s.

It was the diversity of the people there and their collective outlook that was the crucial factor – regardless of whether they came from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the Village, 52nd and 8th, the West Indies, or even Africa, what this group has in common was attitude.  For all, no matter what geographical or ethnic background, class or educational level, sexual preference or proclivity, Harlem was a new opportunity. [1]

The African American dandies of the early 20th century were about what they wore.  In this social system, the dandy was the ‘it’ thing.  To them the dandy was not just about what they worn, but how they presented themselves, how they acted, how they felt in the suit, with the tie, etc.  To the African American dandy it was about thriving culture, new opportunities, a better tomorrow, that it what the suit entailed.  By putting on this look and fitting into this subculture of the dandy, it was not only just a sign to whites, saying we can dress just like you, however it was about performance, about being someone else, a better you.

As the dandy expressed cosmopolite desires or the possibility of a life lived beyond boundaries, the figure, its queerness, prevented the Harlem Renaissance from defining blackness in a way that satisfied either its prohibitive architects or future critics.[2]

Once the dandy became who they were, it is their duty to perform the tasks of defining their place through culture.  Through their fight of civil rights and exploitation New Negro tactics, the dandy was their idea of new opportunity, to be equal.  Regardless of history, the African American dandy in the 1920’s was the future of African American culture, of identifying with whites, as being equals.  It was time to let go of the past and seek the future, and the dandy did this.


[1] Miller, Monica L.. “Passing Fancies.” In Slaves to fashion: black dandyism and the styling of black diasporic identity. London: Duke University Press, 2009. 176-218.

[2] Miller, Monica L.. “Passing Fancies.” In Slaves to fashion: black dandyism and the styling of black diasporic identity. London: Duke University Press, 2009. 176-218.

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