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Made You Look Kristin-Lee Moolman
Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015Photography Kristin-Lee Moolman

How the Dandy redefined black masculinity

From South Africa to Senegal, London and Jamaica, a new photography show explores how Dandyism has deconstructed gender tropes surrounding the black male

The elegant figure of the Dandy, as he emerged in the late 19th century, epitomised an obsession with personal aesthetics and refinement. In a new London exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery entitled Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity, the Dandy figure’s flamboyant style is placed on show – flaunting his powerful retort against the stereotypes of black masculinity. This series of images train their many lenses on the destabilising identity of the black Dandy, a figure deft in making the every day extraordinary with an impeccably cut, and brightly coloured, suits.

Curated by writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun, the exhibition sweeps across borders, capturing streets and studios in Senegal and South Africa, crossing oceans and continents to photograph London, New York, Jamaica and Detroit. To focus on but two of the photographers included, Malick Sidibé’s subjects play in front of the camera atop motorbikes and pose with boxing gloves. Elsewhere, and clashing with multicoloured backgrounds, flamboyant African prints are worn by Hassan Hajjaj’s models-turned-collaborators. Looking across the works, the Dandy's uniform of careful tailoring shifts from picture to picture, by turns a classic tuxedo, a pistachio double-breasted jacket, a matching three-piece suit – or else splashed with Hajjaj's clashing patterns.

Transversing more than a century of Dandyism, the collection of shots appears to defy decades. Isaac Julien’s stills from 1920s-inspired Looking for Langston (1989) explore the desires of gay men during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Meanwhile, a shot taken in 2015 depicting its subject with a large afro and white flares – reminiscent of 70s fashions – is joined by a shot from 1973, it too featuring the wide-legged trouser. The result is a multinational, multifaceted subject for whom the constraints of social and gendered expectations are circumvented.

'Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity' runs at The Photographers' Gallery from July 15th to September 25th