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With Slaves to Fashion, Monica Miller enters the discourse on diaspora in African American Studies through the unlikely avenue of dress. Her analysis, the first of its kind, traces the history of the dressed (and sometimes undressed) black male body from the prestige boy slaves popular in eighteenth-century Europe to the images of the black dandy created by diasporic visual artists such as Isaac Julien, Iké Udé, and Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Encompassing the genres of drama, fiction, photography, film, and sculpture, Miller's study highlights the ways in which diaspora can be located in the image and the imagination of the body and its garments. As a cosmopolitan figure the black dandy contains "European and African and American origins" and "expresses with his performative body and dress the fact that modern identity, in both black and white, is necessarily syncretic, or mulatto, but in a liberating rather than constraining way" (178). In this way "black dandyism becomes a strategy of survival and transcendence" (9).
Miller opens her text by referring to Frederick Douglass's famous chiastic phrase on making a man from a slave—"I show the ways in which Africans dispersed across and around the Atlantic in the slave trade—once slaves to fashion—make fashion their slave"—and with this reversal introduces us to a figure who allures because of his slipperiness (1). As the black dandy makes "fashion his slave," he also traverses borders of race, class, and gender, allowing clothes to create a loophole of freedom through ambiguity. Through the uses of sartorial exaggerations (long coattails or bright colors, for example), cross-dressing, or conscientiously adhering to the fashion of the moment [End Page 151] (the impeccable suits of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson), the black dandy has challenged the way his body has been read by the dominant white European and American cultures while wearing the very garments produced by those cultures. As a result, Miller argues, "Black dandyism serves as both liberation and a mode of conformity" (16).
The value of Miller's text is in its historical range. The chapters progress historically beginning with the eighteenth century in which the character of Mungo in the 1768 play The Padlock—and the presence of prestige slaves, black boys immaculately dressed with padlocks around their necks—set the stage for the emergence of black male dandies. These proto-dandy figures introduce us to the black male dressed body as a concept standing in contrast to more familiar representations of diasporic slave culture that lack sartorial interest. The preoccupation with the naked slave body on the auction block, or the coarse clothes issued to slave populations yearly by plantation owners elide this alternative reading that demonstrates how luxury fabrics and primping were yet another way of controlling the appearance of the black body. By highlighting the popularity of Mungo in both European and American productions of the play, and the ubiquity of the prestige slave through his common appearance in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, Miller sets up a critical space for examining in her subsequent chapters how the dandies reconceive the dressed body in order to destabilize stereotypes constructed by dominant white cultures.
In her second chapter Miller analyzes nineteenth-century canonical writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Charles Chesnutt, with her term "crime of fashion," which describes how racial and class cross-dressing by blacks and the use of blackface minstrelsy turned the black dandy into "both a perpetrator and a victim of crimes of fashion, a figure that both escapes and falls into pat definitions of blackness, masculinity, and sexuality" (81). Her readings of the novels are paired with readings of historical moments of sartorial splendor including Pinkster, an originally Dutch holiday, and Negro Election Day, which were celebrated by slaves in antebellum America with "parades and dances of slaves dressed to the nines in clothing reserved for their social and racial betters" (82). This historical framework lends credence to her detailed focus on canonical...