Martell Campbell in London: CREDIT: SARA SHAMSAVARI
Photo: HANDOUT
Photo: HANDOUT

The dandy lion rebels

Exhibit shows how black men use fashion to stand out.

Shantrelle Lewis refers to the men in her exhibit as “dandy lions.”

Their choice in clothing is about freedom. Imagination. It’s about blowing up the definition of what is black masculinity and repackaging it in polka dots, stripes and bold shades of pink and red and yellow.

It’s about wearing opera shoes and fedoras. It’s dandyism today.

“They’re sartorial rebels who use fashion to buck against systematic stereotypes and to create new narratives of how they see themselves in the world,” said Lewis, curator of the “Dandy Lion: (Re) Articulating Black Masculine Identity,” an exhibit at the Hammonds House Museum that runs through April 28.

The Hammonds House exhibit features more than 80 photos that show black men throughout the African diaspora dressed in their finest — with attitude and the desire to set themselves apart from the status quo. There are more photos in the full exhibit.

It reminds Lewis, 40, of her childhood in New Orleans, where all the men and boys in her family dressed up.

“Casualwear was not a part of their everyday dress,” she said. “For them, dressing up signified manhood and being grown. The differences that I see between dandyism today and that of my earlier eras is that it’s more playful. There was a level of seriousness associated with dandyism that sometimes crossed over into respectability. Today, young men (and women) are dressing up as a way to create nuanced narratives about urban, youth culture. There are still some people who dress up for tradition. Yet there are many others who are dressing up simply to stand out and to look good doing so.”

Dressing up is a ritualistic experience in the black community. Dressing up has significance for people. Even during the civil rights movement, the way people dressed up really spoke to their dignity, their culture and their pride. “How they dressed was very intentional,” she said. “They put on their Sunday best to protest and to fight for human and civil rights. We see the black dandy as an extension of that.”

Lewis, author of “Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style,” said the exhibit, which has had runs in the United Kingdom and Amsterdam, was first shown in 2010 in Harlem. The response was overwhelming.

For the most part, she writes in an introduction to the exhibit, “the ubiquitous image of black men in the media was stereotypical and flat.”

Leatrice Ellzy, director of the Hammonds House Museum, said “Dandy Lion” has been the biggest show in the two years she’s worked there.

“This shows how people see themselves, dressed to the nines,” said Ellzy.

Hammonds House has built a series of events around the exhibit (events are at Hammonds House, unless otherwise noted; see website for updated information):

“The Shape Up”

10 a.m.-2 p.m. March 9. This event provides a blueprint to style, grooming and other essentials for young men ages 12-18. Participants will spend the day at the museum exploring style, etiquette, grooming, health and money matters.

“Rethinking Masculinity: A Conversation with Same-Gender Loving Men Around Style, Fashion and Manner”

3 p.m. March 30. Black gay men have always been a major part of the vanguard for style and fashion and have influenced the greater society in terms of design and trends. A multigenerational panel looks at the “Dandy Lion” exhibition through the lens of the LGBT community. Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, 101 Auburn Ave. NE, Atlanta.

“Cognac and Cigars”

5 p.m. March 31. The Hammonds House Museum teams up with Trilogy Cigar Lounge to host “Cognac and Cigars,” an afternoon of fine cigars, cognac tasting and tasty bites in the museum courtyard.

“Beyond the Barbershop: Conversations About Black Masculinity in America”

2 p.m. April 20. Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president and artistic director of social impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, leads a panel discussion and conversation with black men about what it means to be black and male in contemporary American society. He will also perform an excerpt from his award-winning work, “Word Becomes Flesh,” which was based on a series of letters he wrote to his unborn son. Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, 101 Auburn Ave. NE, Atlanta.

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