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Black Aesthetics: Revisiting 'From Dapper to Dope' and Considering Black Style Traditions

Schomburg Center's Communications Intern, Kiani Ned, concludes her series on the Black Aesthetic in this final blog post in the series that examines the significance of black self-expression through fashion and style:

To centralize the experiences and creative worlds of black people in portraits (as explored in our previous Black Aesthetics post), paintings, literature, and poetry is to engage in black aesthetics. Black aesthetics extend, too, to fashion and personal style. Black fashion and personal style are forms of self imaging—the crafting and understanding of one’s image and identity. This kind of self imaging, especially when perceived by other black people, is exceptionally powerful when none exists in mainstream media. It is but the quotidian covering—the dressing and undressing, of blackness that happens every day.

In February 2015, the Schomburg Center invited the community to celebrate the dressing—in honor of New York Fashion Week and Black History Month—with the panel discussion From Dapper to Dope: The Exquisite and Enduring Style of Harlem Men. Michaela Angela Davis, Bevy Smith, Emil Wilbekin, Guy Wood, and Dapper Dan chatted about the nuances of culture, identity, and personal style. Beautiful photographs by Mangue Banzima of men’s street style in Harlem were exhibited throughout the event. The discussion extended to the Dapper to Dope tumblr page, where folks were, (and still are!), encouraged to submit photos of themselves at their most dapper and their most dope.

Those who fail to understand what it means to exist inside of a black body may ridicule, criticize, and write off the self-imaging of black folks as “loud,” “unprofessional,” “garish,” or “thuggish”—as if those aren’t legitimate ways to exist and express one’s self. They are legitimate.

I understand much of black personal style to symbolize means of survival and world-making. Existing on a spectrum of a dedication to visibility— “you will acknowledge my pain,” “you will acknowledge where I come from,” “you will be face to face with what keeps me up at night,” to attempts at invisibility—“I’d like you to see all this black cloth and not all this black skin,” “I wear white tee shirts and blue jeans, just like you,” “Look… I’m on the way to my J. O. B.”

It is no coincidence that I catch my breath when a black woman with thick locks piled on her head like a crown, emerges from the subway dressed head to toe in flowing white cloth. Her presence seems to announce a newcoming. She dressed herself unaware of my belief in angels. Behind her, a young kid in blood red sneakers and black baggy pants jogs out onto 135th. Another reckoned.

If you’re interested in Black Aesthetics expressed through fashion and personal style, check out these resources in our Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division:

Additional images from our February 2015 program, "From Dapper to Dope:  The Exquisite and Enduring Style of Harlem Men" (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, photographer: Terrence Jennings) 

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