STEAMFUNK DANDIES: Black Men & Women of Distinction in the Age of Steam!
In an earlier post – THE MAHOGANY MASQUERADE: The Politics of Fashion in Steamfunk – we looked at the relationship between politics and fashion. Now, as part of our League of Extraordinary Black People series, we will examine the embodiment of this relationship – the Black Dandy.
Dandyism was initially imposed on black men in eighteenth-century England, as the Atlantic slave trade and an emerging culture of conspicuous consumption generated a vogue in dandified black servants.
“Luxury slaves” tweaked and reworked their uniforms, and were soon known for their sartorial novelty and sometimes flamboyant personalities.
One of the most famous dandies was Julius Soubise, a freed slave who often wore diamond-buckled, red-heeled shoes as he circulated through the social scene of eighteenth-century London.
The magic of dandyism resides in the interplay between the dandy’s temperament and his appearance. Yet it is not a question of simple harmony, for one dandy may combine severe dress with a jocular demeanor, while another meshes cold aloofness with colorful and audacious dress.
1. Physical distinction
Dandyism can only be painted on a suitable canvas. It is impossible to cut a dandy figure without being tall, slender and handsome, or having at least one of those characteristics to a high degree while remaining at least average in the other two.
Elegance, of course, as defined by the standards of a dandy’s particular era.
The dandy’s independence, assurance, originality, self-control and refinement should all be visible in the cut of his clothes. Dandies must love contemporary costume and their dress should be free from folly or affectation.
Dandies must possess a staunch determination to remain unmoved and an immense calm. Should a dandy suffer pain, he should keep smiling.
While self-mastery is the internal practice of keeping emotions in check, aplomb is how it is expressed to the dandy’s audience. Dandyism introduces antique calm among our modern agitations.
Ideally, a dandy should be financially independent, but if the dandy is forced to work, a spirit of independence will be expressed through his work. Independence – often to the point of aloofness – will also characterize the dandy’s dealings with the world.
A dandy should possess a paradoxical way of talking lightly of the serious and seriously of the light.
7. A skeptical, world-weary, sophisticated, bored or blasé demeanor
8. A self-mocking and ultimately endearing egotism
10. Discriminating taste
11. A renaissance man
A dandy ought to dress well, dance well, fence well, have a genius for love letters, and an agreeable voice for a chamber.
Because dandies are an enigma and because dandyism makes its own rules, the final quality is the ability to negate all the other ones, for in the end, there is not a code of dandyism. If there were, anybody could be a dandy.
Dandyism can be seen as a political protestation against the rise of egalitarian principles, often including nostalgic adherence to feudal or pre-industrial values, such as the ideals of “the perfect gentleman” or “the autonomous aristocrat”.
The dandy was, by occupation, always in opposition. He could only exist by defiance. The dandy, therefore, was always compelled to astonish. Dandyism was considered to be an aesthetic form of nihilism.
Dandies – called Dudes in America – were not just men. The female counterpart of the dandy was the Quaintrelle, or Dandizette. The Quaintrelle represented the epitome of elegant speech and beauty, with favorable personality elements of grace and charm.
In the 1840s, William Henry Lane and Thomas Dilward became the first African Americans to perform on the minstrel stage. All-black troupes followed as early as 1855. These companies emphasized that their ethnicity made them the only true delineators of black song and dance.
Racism made black minstrelsy a difficult profession. When playing Southern towns, performers had to stay in character even off stage, dressed in ragged “slave clothes” and perpetually smiling. Troupes left town quickly after each performance, and some had so much trouble securing lodging that they hired out whole trains or had cars custom built to sleep in, complete with hidden compartments in which to hide should things turn ugly. Even these were no haven, as whites sometimes used the cars for target practice. Unsurprisingly, most black troupes did not last long.
In minstrel shows, a common character, and counterpart to the slave, was the dandy. The dandy was portrayed as a northern urban Black man trying to live above his station by mimicking white, upper-class speech and dress – usually with disastrous results.
Dandy characters often went by the name Zip Coon, after the song popularized by George Washington Dixon, although others had pretentious names like Count Julius Caesar Mars and Napoleon Sinclair Brown. Their clothing was a ludicrous parody of upper-class dress: coats with tails and padded shoulders, white gloves, monocles, fake mustaches, and gaudy watch chains. They spent their time primping and preening, going to parties, dancing and strutting, and wooing women. Like other urban black characters, the dandies’ pretentiousness showed that they had no place in white society.
Dandyism was – and will always be a middle finger to the status quo. The Black Dandies can then be considered the originators of the Steamfunk Movement.
On October 26, 2012, we will further explore Dandyism and the other Steampunk / Steamfunk archetypes through cosplay – wearing costumes and / or taking on the persona of real, or invented, characters – a panel discussion and a screening of four short films at The Mahogany Masquerade: A Night of Steamfunk & Film. See you there!