Thus far, my posts have been largely reflective and introspective. This Monday, I’d like to invite you into my intellectual world by sharing a section of my master’s thesis with you. My thesis, “Style as Confrontation: A Critical Reading of Black Dandyism & Black Masculinity in Street Etiquette” remains near to my heart because of my passion for black culture and arts, my dedication to the plight of many black men in the United States, and my interest in how identity can be communicated and even manipulated through style. The following is a teensy, tiny sneak peek of my larger project – I wish I could share it all with you!
Today, many style blogs center on the black, well-dressed male as their subject. In particular, Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs of Street Etiquette receive well over 20,000 blog views every day and were recently referred to by New York Times writer Jon Caramanica as “the most prominent public faces of a new burst of black dandyism.” In their “About Us” section, Kissi and Gumbs describe themselves, their work and their blog as follows:
“Founded in 2008, Street Etiquette is a style blog that approaches personal style from an urban perspective. With sartorial influences stretching over many areas and eras of fashion, owners Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs, each just twenty years old, combine to publish a truly unique vision of fashionable menswear. Among other accolades, Street Etiquette has been featured in magazines such as GQ and Complex, ranked BestMen’s Style Blog by the Guardian UK, and named among “40 Bloggers Who Really Count” by the London Times.”
Despite such popular support Street Etiquette has remained steadfast depicting a unique vision not only of fashionable and unique menswear, but also of black masculinities that exist outside of the paradigms traditionally conveyed through the cultural media.
As John O. Calmore has discussed in“Reasonable and Unreasonable Suspects: The Cultural Construction of the Anonymous Black Man in Public Space (Here Be Dragons),” black males are greatly challenged with the task of “negotiat[ting] public space because many others do not see them” as civil or law-abiding, although a study by Elijah Anderson about young black males in neighborhoods indicated that, generally, they are both. Calmore describes that black men are branded because of how the “stigma of skin color, age, gender appearance, and general style of self-presentation mark them as unwanted traffic” – because of this, they are of frequent concern in public encounters. As if answering Calmore’s call to challenge this cultural construction are Street Etiquette’s representations of the black male in public. The ways Street Etiquette represents the black male in public space disrupts dystopian conjectures of what happens within urban spaces containing black males. Rather than conveying public space as concerning because of the presence of black males, Street Etiquette illustrates the black male as central subjects of public space, rather than unwanted traffic.
In “Fall Etiquette: Motorcycle Jacket,” black males are depicted, as careless and casual within an inner-city setting. They are shown leaning against a school bus and the men wear modes of style that are alternative to hip-hop styles commonly worn by black males projected in dominant cultural media; in doing so, our reception of the black male in an urban, public space is nuanced. These men wear designer and vintage garbs, outside of what New York Times writer Jon Caramanica refers to in his article “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style” as hegemonic hip-hop style. In “Fall Etiquette,” Gumbs delineates the importance of the motorcycle jacket as an item that “transcend[s] trends.” Street Etiquette visually transcends the hegemony of black male style in images perpetuated in the rap and hip-hop cultural sphere, as well as images of black men in the dominant cultural media. If we scrutinize Street Etiquette’s attire as incongruent to their public surroundings this says more about our expectations of what the black male body can and cannot be clothed in amidst such places. Such scrutiny suggests our attachment to dominant cultural images of the black male in public space as well as associated ideologies with those images.
Street Etiquette is aware of their role in creating alternative black male images. Tellingly, Kissi remarks in Caramanica’s New York Times article that he used to wear oversized pants but that changing his style led to “people perceive [him] in a whole different way.” He conveys a sense of cultural pride about Street Etiquette in describing that what they do “shows people of African descent in a good light” (Caramanica). They recognize how their identities as black males are constructed, usually in negative ways, in relation to their urban surroundings, as well as in relation to what they wear, and that is one reason why they deliberately place the black male, unapologetically yet differently, in that public space. Street Etiquette’s consistent placing of black males in public settings interrupts the notion that black men are marginal in public space and also the notion that their only contribution to public space is criminal or suspect.
I hope that this section of my thesis was interesting to you and I also hope that it offered you something new to think about!