A new book Slaves to Fashion published by Duke Press and authored by Monica L. Miller, Assistant Professor of Literature and Barnard University explores the relationship of black people and dress through her exploration of Dandyism from the 18th century to the present. Her research counters stereotypes of black men more normally hypersexualised by the media to explore an era related to conspicuous consumption of the 18th century when the wealthy classes 'kept' black male servants as pets. Her narrative reveals how these slaves improvised their livery to create new fashion forms that were both vogue and dandyfied. The books review notes
“Tracing the history of the black dandy forward to contemporary celebrity incarnations such as Andre 3000 and Sean Combs, Miller explains how black people became arbiters of style and how they have historically used the dandy’s signature tools—clothing, gesture, and wit—to break down limiting identity markers and propose new ways of fashioning political and social possibility in the black Atlantic world.”
But this kind of innovation should not be surprising to us in the Caribbean where fashion and adornment have played a crucial role in defining the black self. For a people transported to the region without possessions, who since emancipation have built their sense of race and nation around ideals of dignity reflected in the refined dress of freemasonry, the pomp and glory of the UNIA, the regal and military garb of Haile Selassie, church hats and dresses and even the crowning glory of dread locks, clothes have become an important marker of freedom and dignity. Slaves to Fashion provides a historical context for understanding contemporary trends in dance hall where some of Jamaica’s most deadly gangsters wear outrageously gaudy and feminine clothes, colour and perm their hair and pluck their eyebrows to promote their difference. This is a history that redefines black manhood and our relationship to the body that makes sense of our present day foibles for trinkets and bling.