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Ashley Elizabeth Miller on "Slaves to Fashion"

Cover of "Slaves to Fashion": A black dandy

Monica L. Miller

Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity

Duke University Press, 2009
408 pages
$24.95

Reviewed by Ashley Elizabeth Miller

In Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, Monica L. Miller takes style seriously as a source of identity formation. This dynamic and inventive project traces an evolution of black fashion, which Miller argues has the power to transform its wearers from “costumed object[s]” to “self-styling subjects.” She focuses specifically on the figure of the black dandy, a subject chosen for its unique ability to limn the lines of class, race, and sexuality. Interested in the Atlantic diaspora, Miller’s analysis spans time and place, beginning with the African slave trade, traveling to eighteenth- century England, and finally turning to nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, concluding in the modern day. Miller analyzes the ways the dandy uses his “signature method: a pointed redeployment of clothing, gesture, and wit” both to understand and to destabilize black identity. She reads the black dandy’s employment of style as a strategic “negotiation of oppressive ideologies and degrading images of blackness” that ultimately created a space for imagining new identities across these changing national and cultural landscapes.

The archive Miller draws upon for this project is vast and diverse. She analyzes an impressive variety of dramatic, literary, and visual texts for representations of the stylized black dandy. The physical objects that Miller reads range from small accessories, such as ribbons and beads, to larger articles of clothing, such as suits. Her analysis of the dandy pivots around these articles of clothing and accessories to consider the cost of such garments, their fit on the body, and the movement of the dandy within the clothes. Her readings thus bring attention to an array of literary details, including the close fit of Matthew’s clothing in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Dark Princess (1928) and the grandiose way Tom Delamere moves in his suit while performing the cakewalk dance in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901).

Miller’s work builds upon and deftly weaves together a number of scholarly traditions, including material culture studies, performance studies, queer studies, African American studies, and American literary studies. Her theory of clothing follows that of many material culture theorists (such as Mary Douglas & Baron Isherwood and Arjun Appadurai) who view articles of clothing as signals that send messages to society. As such, these items of apparel, Miller argues, communicate differently to black or white audiences. She argues that black clothing choices carry specific purposes, beyond simply what is in vogue, and are charged by racial identity. Drawing on the work of both Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and E. Patrick Johnson, Miller reads black dandies as potentially subversive figures that “signify on” categories of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality in order to “break down limiting identity markers and propose new, more fluid categories within which to constitute themselves.” Consequently, she argues, black dandyism is “a dialogic process that exists in relation to white dandyism at the same time it expresses, through its own internal logic, black culture.”

Miller’s study of the dandy begins in eighteenth-century England, where she examines the status of the luxury slave. She begins this analysis with Mungo, a famous stage character in the Spanish play The Padlock (1768), who wore “glittering uniform[s]” made of red- and white-striped silk in order to display the owner’s wealth to society. Moving to historical examples, Miller looks at a number of slaves whose apparel both bespoke their owner’s wealth and revealed their personal styling. Miller includes here an animated discussion of one famous freed slave, Julius Soubise, who was known around town for his “diamond-buckled red-heeled shoes” and who, she argues, consciously utilized clothing to form his identity. Miller traces this figure of the luxury slave across the Atlantic to America, where she locates it in highly stylized American minstrel performances.

Miller’s analysis follows the black dandy to nineteenth-century America, describing the combination of subversion and stereotypes inherent in his style choices as “the crime of fashion.” She applies this phrase to “the racial and class cross-dressing that was, as practiced by blacks, a symbol of a self-conscious manipulation of [white] authority and, as seen in blackface, an attempted denigratory parody of free blacks’ pride and enterprise.” She argues that Charles Chesnutt’s black characters update minstrel characters (such as those seen in the writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain) in order to imagine a “New Negro.”

Miller contends that the dandy and the New Negro remained linked during the Harlem Renaissance, particularly in works by W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. She claims that, like Chesnutt, Du Bois “modernizes the figure [of the dandy] for use in the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.” In her reading of The Dark Princess, Miller claims that Du Bois uses the character of the dandy Matthew to explore “African identity in the diaspora, celebrating a potential reconnection of Africans and African Americans by means of and perhaps in fancy dress.” Miller’s reading of The Dark Princess expands the importance of Matthew’s politicized sense of style to a more universal philosophy of aesthetics that echoes Du Bois’s own conviction that art should function as a political weapon. She thus positions the black dandy as a figure uniquely capable of facing “modernity’s challenge to acknowledge the multiplicity of forces that construct [...] blackness, masculinity, and Americanness or nationality.” However, Miller emphasizes that the dandy figure was not always a stable one, and she focuses on the dandy’s capacity to embrace multiplicity and defy categorization as she analyzes Johnson’s work. She argues that, in contrast to earlier Harlem Renaissance leaders like Du Bois, Johnson illustrates a dandy figure that cannot be confined to the “easy packaging” of the New Negro but instead explodes the identity of the dandy type by refusing categories of race, gender, or sexuality as binding definitions. This very refusal, Miller contends, suggests an endless spectrum of possibilities for black identity.

Miller’s analysis concludes with a reflection on the evolution of the dandy figure from the Harlem Renaissance to the 1990s. Reading the dandy in visual and film culture, Miller argues that the contemporary figure of “New Dandyism” is “emblematic of the freedoms and limitations” (emphasis mine) of the late twentieth- century lifestyle. The contemporary dandy figure is so “ironic, self-conscious, and historically referential” that Miller asks if we are not indeed “both post-dandy and post-black.” She concludes by recognizing the alternating “success and failure of the dance of dandyism as an aesthetic tool to define and redefine blackness” that still leaves its mark on the likes of entertainers such as Sean Combs and Andre 3000.

Miller’s work here will be of interest to scholars in many literary fields, particularly African American, queer, diasporic, and material culture studies. The past decade has given rise to a number of critical texts that focus on material culture (work by Bill Brown, Gary Totten, Gary Otten, and Katherine Joslin, to name a few). Many of these studies have focused on the turn of the twentieth century in America, and particularly on white authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton. Miller’s reading of dress and personal style opens up the world of material culture across both time and race in a generative way that will hopefully inspire other scholars to extend her work beyond the black dandy to other realms of African American culture. Using Miller’s premise that black culture in general utilized fashion in a tactical way that varied from that of white consumers, one might analyze the roles fashion plays for authors such as Nella Larsen and Richard Wright. Miller’s work also offers rich discussions for scholars interested in the figure of the dandy, particularly as it occupies a queer space. And though her case studies remain centrally focused on England and the United States, her theories of cultural signification would lend themselves to studies in Caribbean literatures and other diasporic movements. This book enriches the story of one very specific group (the black dandy) with vigor and gusto, and it opens space for a deeper consideration of the multifaceted uses of dress across gender, race, and culture.