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The Return of London's Black Male Fashion Setters

Shantella Y. Sherman | 11/13/2013, 3 p.m.
Caribbean men after disembarking the S.S. Empire Windrush in England (Courtesy photo)

Whether among the millions taking part in the Great Migration of interwar U.S., or those immigrating to England from Africa and the Caribbean post-World War II, black social mobility often hinged upon the power to present themselves as fashionably respectable. Look no further than James Van Der Zee’s celluloid photos of new supplants to Harlem, casting like X-ray imagery, the hidden promise of things to come. Images of men – in gabardines and silks, imposing and determined – created a space that even in economic instability and social unrest, echoed the assertion, “When a man can stand up to the mirror, he can stand up to life.”

It is similarly found in the mountain of photos housed in the Library of Congress of shoeless migrants, whose lack of footwear indicated a lack of social fitness. Often through sharing, retooling, unthreading, and patchwork, they stitched together their own style and reinforced their dignity. This use of clothing as social currency, known as dandyism, resurfaces among people of color often. And in no place is the return to classic style punctuated with more African or Caribbean bravura, than the streets of London.

Eighteenth-century England saw the rise of extreme wealth and servant dress as an extension of aristocratic wealth. These servants’ style of dress, known as dandyism distinguished them as “luxury slaves” in the same manner as a modern-day luxury car. Though forced and conspicuous during bondage, dandyism, morphed into an aggressive strategy by Blacks of using clothing and style to self-identify and racially redefine blackness in ambiguous political and culturally-hostile spaces.

“Almost as soon as a slave was issued a piece of clothing, he or she understood that the garment served not only to protect him or her from the elements, but was also part of a power struggle over Black identity. Refusing to be defined by others, Blacks have countered their representation sartorially, by pointedly playing with their clothing, manipulating it to better express the complexity of who they are,” writes historian Monica L. Miller.

Miller, author of Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity first encountered the concept of the black dandy while a graduate student when the term was used derisively to caricature W.E.B. Du Bois by one of his critics.

Mbayo Kalemba, while walking Canary Wharf in a sharply tapered pinstriped suit, concurred that clothing functions as more than just covering. The Brighton-born financial analyst said his boyhood in England was marked by strict Senegalese parents who believed a polished appearance proved to hostile neighbors they were civilized and were good citizens.

“My mum insisted on starched and ironed clothing, well-polished shoes, and immaculately groomed hair. She was a seamstress and made what we could not afford. Even though I thought it was a lot of fuss for people who might never accept us, my look got me plenty of girls,” Kalemba, 45, said. “Eventually, the white boys in the neighborhood mimicked my look to get girls; they continued to chase me home and call me names, though.”

Kalemba said that there exists a level of pride that comes with being able to re-appropriate the gaze of suspicion a lot of black males face through fashion. He points to American rappers whose stardom impacted their style, and in turn, redefined youth fashion trends.

“Concern over youth with hoods on and baggy pants is really about their unchecked masculinity. These are young, powerful males who refuse to conform. It is the same as a bloke in the ’70s wearing a midriff shirt and tight trousers – almost the embodiment of feminine, but somehow shifting the parameters until even that becomes the height of masculinity,” Kalemba said. “Only black men could pull that off; it’s how we survive,” Kalemba said.