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Who Were the First Black Dandies?

It was last year, at a black-studies conference at Northwestern University, that my colleague Stacey Patton noticed something surprising. All those graduate students and young professors milling about? They looked sharp—really sharp, actually.

Of course, this isn’t exactly par for the course at an academic gathering. So Stacey asked a group of folks why they were so well turned out. “You don’t know?” one of them asked her. “Black dandies are the in thing in the academy.”

And it’s not just the academy. Whether you’ve heard them called “dandies” or not, you’ve seen plenty of African-Americans looking mighty soigné lately. Think of Kevin Durant, the NBA player, who sports nerdy glasses and mysterious backpacks at his postgame press conferences. Or Andre 3000, the hip-hop star, who’s fond of matching pink shirts with green polka-dotted bowties. It’s all part of a process that Monica L. Miller calls “stylin’ out”—using dress to toy with traditional expectations of race, gender, and sexuality.

Ms. Miller would know: She’s an associate professor of English at Barnard college, and her book Slaves to Fashion is (I think it’s fair to say) the definitive text on the phenomenon of black dandyism. So I asked her a question that had been bouncing around my mind since I first chatted with Stacey: How’d this whole practice come about, anyway?

Her answer was a revelation—a story about slavery, sexuality, and sartorialism that begins in 1760s England, of all places. The original black dandies, Ms. Miller told me, weren’t dapper by choice. They were “luxury slaves”: young men imported from the West Indies, purchased by members of London’s white elite, and trained in elocution, equestrianism, and other genteel arts.

It was conspicuous consumption of the most ugly sort. But one luxury slave, a man named Julius Soubise, found a way to turn the whole thing on its head. For more than a decade, he was a fascinating, flamboyant presence in patrician London—until his sexuality started to seem a bit too threatening. His is a sad story in many ways, but it’s one worth hearing, and I’m glad we could tell it here.

Vauxhall Garden background audio courtesy of freesound.com users jakeharries and lonemonk.

Download this episode: MP3

Read Stacey Patton’s story: Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality?

View the photos: Black Dandies Fashion New Academic Identities

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