Dressing to express
Ranging from New York to Soweto, a new exhibition shows the power of clothes to challenge assumptions about race, class and gender
Fleur Macdonald | July 29th 2016
In 1975 a teenage photographer called Samuel Fosso opened his own studio in Bangui, in the Central African Republic. During the day he would photograph clients; at night he would use up the unexposed rolls of film, taking photos of himself in different costumes and poses, sending some to his mother in Nigeria to reassure her that he was alright.
In one self-portrait he poses in an outfit that could have come out of David Bowie’s wardrobe: platform shoes, football socks and white fringed shorts. It was a provocative way to dress in a country then under the tyrannical rule of Jean-Bédel Bokassa. In 1979, the dictator reportedly sanctioned the execution of 100 schoolchildren for not wearing the correct school uniform.
“Dandyism”, said Roland Barthes, “is condemned to be radical or not exist at all.” The dandies featured in “Made You Look”, an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho, London, range from fops wearing pearls and flares in modern-day Soweto to Senegalese men in bowties and bowlers at the beginning of the 20th century. All sport the same mixture of pride and insouciance.
As Ekow Eshun, the show’s curator, explains, certain black men invest a lot in how they look, dress and carry themselves: “not purely for superficial reasons but as a kind of personal politics, as a way of defining an identity against a white gaze, against a society that can often caricature them, ‘other’ them as a brute, and define them by the colour of their skin rather than the texture of their inner lives.”
The exhibition is definitely on trend. “Dandy Lion” at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco takes a similar premise, while “2026”, a futuristic exploration of black masculinity and fashion, has just opened at London’s Somerset House.
It’s not a coincidence that people are interested in these themes now, Eshun tells me. “Some of the biggest cultural figures on the planet are black men but at the same time black men are pretty vulnerable…You just have to look at the Black Lives Matter [campaign].” He is fascinated by how black men negotiate these spaces between “high visibility” and “high vulnerability”.
“Made You Look” celebrates men who have used fashion to question assumptions about race, class, gender and sexuality. Encompassing North America, Britain and Africa, over two centuries of intense social and political upheaval, this exhibition cannot possibly represent the full spectrum of black dandyism. But perhaps that’s the point.
Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity Photographers’ Gallery until September 25th 2016
Fleur Macdonald is features editor of TRUE Africa, a website that looks at culture, music, sport and politics from an African perspective