The Evolution of Black Masculinity Through Fashion
Photographer Awol Erizku and writer Wilbert L. Cooper investigate how black men have shifted the way they represent their masculinity through their style.
All eyes were on Shayne Oliver as he stepped into a sweltering Bronx church in the heat of summer, 2000. The lanky teenager shuffled into the vestibule wearing a short white crop top, exposing his taut midriff. Blots of black skin poked through hand-tattered jeans that were so tight he had to cut them up and safety-pin them back together to get them on. Shayne's outfit set him drastically apart from the men of the congregation, who wore boxy suits. He and his mother hadn't even taken seats in a pew before the preacher started spewing a diatribe of venomous, homophobic remarks from the pulpit. It took a moment before Shayne realized the preacher was attacking him. "Basically, the pastor ran me out of the church," he told me recently. "I stopped going after that."
Shayne's now 25 and the designer of menswear label Hood By Air, whose provocative styles—along with brands like Telfar and Third Floor—are carving out a new and empowering palette of masculinity for young black men to paint from. At Shayne's shows, it's not out of the ordinary to see his models stalk the runway in makeup and dresses. Their bellies are often exposed, and half the time you can't tell whether they're men or women. But far from sissiness, the looks exude the visceral power of a lineman crushing a quarterback, or two swords clashing in an action film. This time last year, at Shayne's debut New York Fashion Week runway show, the scene was so thick I had to stand on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of his powerful vision of androgynous modern menswear. With macho gangster rapper A$AP Rocky on the catwalk, and stars like Kanye West and Waka Flocka Flame in the crowd offering up their adulation, the show was the birth of a new epoch in the evolution of black masculinity.
There have been others who've pushed similar boundaries in the past. Before Kanye and A$AP, black artists like Sly and the Family Stone in the 60s and Cameo in the 80s wore gear that looked like it was straight out of the Folsom Street Fair. In the 90s, Tupac walked in a Versace fashion show in a flamboyant gold suit.
But one of the things that sets this new wave apart from what came before is that straight men like Kanye and Rocky have no problem recognizing that some of their looks might have originated in the gay community. This kind of inclusiveness and openness is one of the many elements that signifies a shift in the way black men comport themselves in an age when the old notions of machismo, which were burdened with the baggage of 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow, continue to be chipped away.
Hypermasculinity has long been a way for some black men to deal with the stature and privilege they've historically been denied in this country. It's a reaction to the institutionalized de-masculation that was a crucial part of slavery, in which grown men were reduced to terms like "boy" and "nigger," subjected to castration, and often forced to watch their wives and daughters get ravaged and raped without recourse or retaliation. That emphasis on machismo in black culture has spawned criticism of the more androgynous new styles hitting the streets courtesy of designers like Shayne. Hip-hop forerunner Lord Jamar, of Brand Nubian fame, recently released a vicious diss track titled "Lift Up Your Skirt," which refers to Kanye as a "fag" for wearing a "dress" and introducing "skinny jeans to the rap scene."
"I think [these reactions] have to do with the whole fight of being black and being afraid that it shows weakness and offers a weak image of the black community," Shayne told me. The systematic emasculation of black men in American culture is such a serious topic, it's been talked about as a concerted white conspiracy in nearly every black barbershop I've set foot in. And considering the farcical and hurtful caricatures portrayed in popular culture—from minstrelsy back in the day to Tyler Perry today—it makes a lot of sense why.
After he left his show on Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle told Oprah, "When I see that they put every black man in the movies in a dress at some point in their career, I start connecting the dots." The comedian recalled a time when the writer, director, and producer of a film he was working on all tried to convince him to get in drag out of the blue. "I don't need to wear no dress to be funny! What is this, Brokeback Mountain in here?"
It might seem ridiculous for one man to get so up in arms about the cut and silhouette of another man's garments, but fashion—going all the way back to the antebellum South—has played a major role in the way some black men express their masculinity. Dr. Akil Houston, a professor of cultural and media studies in the Department of African American Studies at Ohio University, broke down its historical importance for me over the phone.
"You have to remember," Dr. Houston said, "black men were considered three-fifths of a person for voting purposes during slavery. There weren't many viable ways for them to assert their manliness. But what they could do was use their body, and historically many black men went to fashion to do that."
The clearest manifestation of this is the tradition of blacks putting on their "Sunday best" for church. Six days a week, enslaved men toiled endlessly in rags not fit to clean the inside of a chimney. Sunday granted them an opportunity to cleanse themselves of the filth of a week's work and exhibit pride—an essential aspect of masculinity, but a most dangerous emotion to express for a piece of human livestock who wasn't even granted the freedom to read or write.
The specter of slavery has long had a resounding impact on the masculinity of black men. During slavery, stereotypical qualities of black men—that we are volatile, libidinous, stupid, brutish—were propagated to help justify the practice. Portraying blacks as animals made it more acceptable for them to be treated like animals. And unfortunately, these tropes still rear their ugly heads as a justification by the powers that be today for everything from the execution of stop-and-frisk in New York to the unfair application of Stand Your Ground in Florida.
In black men, these lies can manifest in what W. E. B. Du Bois called a double consciousness, which he described in an 1897 issue of the Atlantic Monthly as the "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." The phenomenon of this double consciousness can often put black men on two distinct paths of masculinity—either to define oneself in direct opposition to those stereotypes or to acquiesce and embody them. In the black ghettos of America, it's not rare to see more of the latter than the former.
"On the streets, there is a distorted concept of masculinity... When you have holes in your shoes and you see someone getting money, they become your first heroes," said Daniel "Dapper Dan" Day in the living room of his regal Harlem brownstone. "But real masculinity is not being able to inflict pain. It's being able to take it."
Dan was a Harlem hustler who became a fashion legend in the 80s for the luxurious, bespoke menswear garments of his eponymous boutique. The clothes, sported by black celebrities like Mike Tyson and crack kingpins like Alberto "Alpo" Martinez, were emblazoned with the monograms of European fashion houses—Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton—at a time when those companies were mainly producing leather goods and accessories. Eventually, when those fashion houses got wind of what Dap was doing, they sued him out of business but subtly reappropriated his style, which has served as a blueprint for high-end menswear and streetwear alike.
"I [was so] angry, I didn't even know how angry I was," he said in revelatory astonishment. Given his impact on the way we dress today, it's hard to understand why he didn't become something more than a street legend. Sitting on a lush couch across from me in a rust-colored lambskin leather vest and pants of his own design, Dan tried to explain. "The only thing that ever held me back was... you know, my color didn't even hold me back as much as my perception of my color."
The weight of history and the very real racial strife that existed during his day stopped him from seeking alliances with people who might have helped him continue to build his dream.
"I will never allow myself to limit myself to only people like myself again" he said. "There is no growth in that. You need to be [with the] gay, straight, white, black, Spanish, English, everything..." Then he looked over to his son, Jelani, who sat on the opposite couch in all-black sweats and a towering afro, and said with pride, "But my son is not like me, he's different. He didn't grow up angry at everything."
What Dan said about his son echoed so much of what I saw among this new wave of creative artists, who seemed to be aware of the past but not scarred by it. Their distance from the history that shaped men like Dapper Dan have helped them be braver and more equipped to break new ground.
This was evident to me when I met with Darryl "CurT@!n$" Jackson, the brand director of the burgeoning luxury-streetwear label En Noir. When I tried to ask him about blackness and masculinity, he balked. "I've never really thought racially. I know that I am black, but what is black?"
At first, I was taken aback by CurT@!n$
But I realized, through our talk, it wasn't that CurT@!n$ denies the existence or history of racism; he simply refuses to allow it to infect his image of himself or the world around him. "If you say, 'I can touch the ceiling,' that thought lives in your mind. Even if you can't physically touch it, you always think you can touch it, you just think, I haven't done it yet."
In terms of broadening the scope of masculinity, we haven't done it yet either. Even Kanye admits he was scared to death of wearing his leather kilt in his hometown Chicago, and Shayne told me that he thinks even today, more than a decade later, that Bronx church would still run him out for his unique look. As James Baldwin brilliantly wrote in his 1955 essay "Stranger in the Village," which reflects on the legacy of slavery, "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them."
But if he's right about that—and I think he is—when this new movement of designers and artists eventually becomes our history, it will have the ability to foster a new level of freedom and self-expression. Hopefully we will feel liberated enough to just be ourselves instead of a mere reflection of the pain of the past.
WORDS BY WILBERT L. COOPER
PHOTOS BY AWOL ERIZKU
STYLIST: IAN BRADLEY
ART DIRECTION: ADRIAN PHILLIPS
Stylist Assistants: Dawn Nguyen, Dennine Dyer, Tyrone Walls Grooming: Michael Anthony Hair: Triana Francois for Hair Models: Aly Ndiaye and Randy Bowden at Boss Models NY, Anthony Ruffin at RED, Jeremiah Phiniezy at St. Claire, Keem White, Magor Mbengue, Renald Seme, Ro¯ze Traore, Yunis Torres
Fashion credits for lead photo: Third NYC pants, Nike sneakers, Native Danger backpack; Hood By Air shirt, Luar Zepol shorts, adidas Originals sneakers; Luar Zepol pants, adidas Originals sneakers; Conflict of Interest shirt, Native Danger shorts, adidas Originals sneakers