You may wonder what a “Dandy” or “Black Dandy” is and where it came from. The truth is, the terminology has been around for centuries. According to a report, in the early 17th century, Beau Brummel, an English fashion pioneer, created the Dandy movement, which allowed men to wear festive and form-fitted clothing. The Black Dandy is a legacy of stylish noblemen of the African Diaspora, and has become an increasingly documented global phenomenon from New York City to London’s Saville Row to Brazzaville in the Congo, according The Daily Beast.
Shantrelle P. Lewis, a New Orleans native, is an author, international curator and researcher, who examined Dandyism and the nuances of Black people around the world. Using her historical background and educational expertise, Lewis expanded on Black Dandyism and the treatment of Black men throughout our rigid history. She spoke with EBONY.com about her educational background, book inspiration and her creation of not just a seat, but the construction of our own table.
EBONY.com: Tell me about your background and what inspired your decision to go into curating?
Lewis: I’m originally from New Orleans, La. I came to the East Coast probably almost two decades ago to attend Howard University and later Temple University. My background in academia is in Africana studies. I’ve been researching and exploring the African Diaspora throughout my career and primarily through my work as a curator. I’ve looked at this subject matter specifically about how we express ourselves culturally, spiritually and aesthetically as people around the globe. I’ve found that museums and art galleries have been these open classrooms as space for dialogue and conversation about issues that are pressing. That are also urgent at the forefront of our social political movements in a contemporary context. Those historical factors of who we are as a people that aren’t necessarily explored in the mainstream. Art is a vehicle for social change that is widely accessible.
EBONY.com: What was the inspiration behind your book, Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style?
Lewis: I’ve been really exploring diasporas. So I came to this work of Dandyism and Dandy lion by just pulling from a place of wanting to elevate the image of Black men in the media because of the ways in which I feel like we are bombarded not just in the U.S., but as a society globally and internationally. Where the images of Black men are menacing, they’re threatening, they’re highly problematic and pathological.
EBONY.com: What exactly does a Dandy Lion mean to you and what made you specifically want to explore a topic like that?
Lewis: So Dandy Lion was a response to the Prison industrial complex. It was a response to the glorification of like the Black male as a thug image. It was a response to the murders of Black men and boys and how they’re treated primarily in the U.S. So some people question, “What does dressing up have to do with that?” Right? Like wearing a bow tie or wearing a suit or wearing polka dot spectacles, you know? What does that have to do with all of these issues? And on one hand, Dandyism is a space where Black men have agency over their narrative and their image in ways that other styles of dress don’t allow Black men to have. It gives them the capacity to control whatever narrative it is that they want people to think about them.
Dandyism functions to control the narrative about how they want to be seen in the world. And how they also see themselves. In homage to social, political, revolutionary leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois, Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba, all of these intellectual and political revolutionaries and radicals who were serious about freeing Black people and moving outside of spaces of oppression.
EBONY.com: Why exactly did you want to explore a street style?
Lewis: There’s a certain type hyper-baggy, excessively casual dress with total disregard and lack of care around how one is dressing up and leaving out of the house. People are capitalizing off that. So people are being criminalized and that image is culturally tied to our criminalization. With Dandyism and, in particularly street style, it’s something that is very accessible regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of how much money you make. You don’t have to be a banker. You don’t have to be in finance to dress up.
A lot of these guys in a lot of cases, like Dandies, a lot of the stuff they’re wearing is inexpensive, is like vintage wear, from thrift stores. Or from their grandfathers or their dad’s closet. Just like these old suits that they’re repurposed and remixed to create a new expression. Right? And so I think it’s timeless.
EBONY.com: What is one of your most rewarding experiences as a curator?
Lewis: Being able to show up whether it’s in Lagos, Nigeria, [where I was recently] for a social media event with my husband, who’s Nigerian. Or being able to go into these spaces and being, not only expecting but embrace, but then also have the opportunity to share my story as a Black woman from the states from New Orleans, which is a very specific experience that is special and is different from that of a New Yorker or that of someone from Los Angeles. Being able to share those stories.
EBONY.com: How do you feel that your New Orleans origins, shaped the mind of your creativity?
Lewis: New Orleans is the layer through which I look at the rest of the world. Any time I open up my mouth, even if they don’t know what a New Orleans accent is, know it’s somewhere else, and they’re trying to place me. New Orleans was one of the first cosmopolitan cities in the U.S. and in the western hemisphere. You had this blend of these European cultures, these African cultures, the Caribbean cultures, these indigenous cultures; you had that blend but I always tell people all the time, New Orleans is a very African city. I could be in Europe, or the Caribbean, wherever, I always say I’m from New Orleans.
EBONY.com: What are your current passions and aspirations?
Lewis: What I’m working toward now really is creating access for others who don’t typically have access to these resources. Whether they are museums or galleries, educational institutions, giving people access to learn about themselves and really celebrate who we are as a people. I’ve had the freedom to do that through visual art and through curatorial practice, and which is very African centered. Usually curators work through a typical western art lens, but I’m centering our experience and our world view as people of African descent first.
It’s about really asserting our human rights. Our right to live, our right to be joyful. Our right to love. Our right to learn. Just our right to not be oppressed. Whether it’s the work that I’m doing with Dandy lion looking at Black Dandyism, if it’s my exhibition work around sexual violence against Black girls, if it’s my work around Blacks in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. It’s all moving, I’m trying to move us forward as a people. And using visual and contemporary art as the vehicle in which to do so.
Ebony.com: So creating a seat at the table?
Lewis: My work is really about creating our own table. Or sitting at the table that was created by our ancestors or our predecessors. People who came before us who fought so hard for us to have certain things and certain freedoms. I’m more concerned about sitting at that or those tables or creating our own than necessarily sitting somebody else’s table.