- Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Identity
Monica Miller claims that the history of black dandyism is virtually unknown in spite of the fact that its traces surround us. Black bodies' ability to contain and confront the ethos of key cultural moments and the attendant complex relationships between cosmopolitanism and the corporation, postcolonialism and visual culture are the subjects of Miller's Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Identity. In this volume, Miller shows "the ways in which Africans dispersed across and around the Atlantic in the slave trade—once slaves to fashion—make fashion their slave" (1). Miller has performed a cultural excavation, sifting through fragments of visual and literary culture to trace a history of black style and assemble the first history of black dandyism. Her work deserves a place among the finer recent contributions to black performance studies, including Marvin McAllister's White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Colour (2003) and Harry J. Elam Jr. and Kennell Jackson's Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture (2005). Slaves to Fashion provides a platform from which further theorizing of the relationship between black bodies, culture, and commerce can commence. [End Page 1137]
Slaves to Fashion delineates a cultural practice black subjects are not often thought to engage in. Black men have been excluded from most studies of dandyism. Even among scholars of the black Diaspora, Miller's situation of black dandyism within the realm of other modes of black performance is singular. Her study of the shifting visual, literary, and theatrical representations of black people, and black men's move from luxury object to stylish subject, provides a means by which to reevaluate black masculinity within the Diaspora. As Miller points out, "black dandyism is often seen as being imitative of Western dress and as a sign of one's aspiration to enter the mainstream, but when interpreted as a signifying practice, it becomes instead a dialogic process that exists in relation to white dandyism at the same time as it expresses, through its own internal logic, black culture" (14). Miller's work is not merely an extension of previous investigations into the power of black signifiying. Slaves to Fashion takes a nuanced approach to its subject matter by treating black style as performance, as opposed to simply theorizing the performativity of blackness.
In the first chapter of her work, "Mungo Macaroni: The Slavish Swell," Miller painstakingly outlines the forced cosmopolitanism that characterized the lives of black slaves and servants. In England, Isaac Bickerstaffe's highly successful play The Padlock (1768) featured an assertive and nattily clad slave named Mungo Macaroni. The use of the term "Mungo" to describe black swells can be traced to this play. "Mungo Macaroni" draws attention to the dark figures often left to sit on the sidelines of eighteenth-century studies. Mapping a transatlantic movement from Africa to the Americas and to England, Miller explains that black dandy figures first emerged in eighteenth-century England as status symbols for their owners. Separated from the British colonies (and thus from the site of the production of their owner's wealth), the black dandy's lifestyle mirrored the lifestyle of the upper classes, even though his social position was tenuous. Luxury blacks piqued curiosity and captured the public's imagination. One of the first English plays to use blackface, The Padlock went on to successful runs in America and was influential in early American theatrical productions. Miller explains that in the figure of Mungo Macaroni and his real life counterparts, one could read "the complicated prehistory of African-diasporic identity formation and representation" (41).
In the next chapter, "Crimes of Fashion: Dressing the Part from Slavery to Freedom," Miller shows the relationship between "two indigenous dandyish performative traditions": American slave carnivals and blackface minstrelsy. Miller writes that "in the colonial period and throughout the nineteenth century in America, black dandyism, as enacted at these indigenous festivals, was a practice that destabilized...