For many, style is much deeper than articles of clothing; it's a statement of identity. Black men have a unique relationship with fashion, one that can be traced all the way back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Monica L. Miller, the author of Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, spoke with Tell Me More's Michel Martin about the past, present and future of black men's fashion.
Miller, an associate professor of English at Barnard College, explains that African-American men have used style as a way to challenge stereotypes about who they are. "Sometimes the well-dressed black man coming down the street is asking you to look and think."
Victor Holliday, associate producer of on-air fundraising at NPR and one of the resident kings of style, tells Martin that he learned about the importance of fashion at an early age. "When I was 5 years old, I knew exactly how I was going to look," he says. "And that was the year I got my first trench coat and my top hat."
Holliday's style icon is his father, who taught him that the main object of dressing up is winning respect. "Because as you present yourself seriously, people tend to take you seriously."
Holliday is one of the men featured in Tell Me More's Kings of Style slideshow.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are going to stay fashionable this New Year's Eve and ask a question we know might raise some hackles, but we're going to go there anyway and ask, why are so many African-American men so stylish? In a moment, we will speak with an author who has looked at the fashion history of black men going back centuries and what she has to say about this is fascinating.
But, first, we decided to look around our own offices here at NPR and discovered there was no shortage of dapper black men. So we called Victor Holliday for perspective. He is associate producer of On-Air fundraising. That's in the programming department and he is known for his sense of style and he's with us now.
Victor, happy holidays.
VICTOR HOLLIDAY, BYLINE: Thank you very much and happy holidays to you.
MARTIN: Where do you think your sense of style comes from?
HOLLIDAY: Well, my sense of style started almost, I would assume, from the day that I learned to walk because my parents were both smooth dressers - and especially my dad - and he always wanted us to look our best, of course, behave our best and, really, be our best.
MARTIN: Do you have a style icon or a style role model?
HOLLIDAY: Well, my dad was my role model and remains so. Even what I'm wearing today is something that he would have stylishly pulled off in the '60s. When I was five years old, I knew exactly how I was going to look and that was the year I got my first trench coat and my top hat. And one of the things that's really important to me in terms of accoutrement with how we dress is a proper topper. My father was a hat man and I'm a hat man, but I think that that chapeau really sort of adds just that touch of being completely well-presented.
MARTIN: Did he ever explain or did either of your parents ever explain why that was important, to look well and to dress well, to be sharp?
HOLLIDAY: Well, it was a early training ground for how to comport myself in the world. Because, as you present yourself seriously, people tend to take you seriously and so, when I think back on the civil rights movement and marvelous examples like Martin Luther King, who had a suit and a tie and a crisp, white shirt on as he was leading the struggle for civil rights and you see people of color just dressed so well, you wanted to bring your best self forward and be in appearance like you were taking care of business because they certainly were.
MARTIN: Do you think that black people ever take it too far?
HOLLIDAY: No, I don't think so. I don't think they take it too far. Why would you say that?
MARTIN: Well, because - as we were talking to Professor Monica Miller about her book about black dandyism and that the title in itself - even the word, dandyism, which has a very long history, can be considered pejorative and there are some people who, while I think that they respect African-American style, in some ways, feel that it's a little bit much and I wonder if anybody's ever suggested your own style has ever been a little bit too much.
HOLLIDAY: I can't say that anybody's actually said that in that sort of direct way. Maybe perhaps somebody has thought that, but I know that, when I step out of my door, I want to put my best foot forward. Obviously, we've had a certain kind of history in this country. And like my parents and their parents before them, which had very little to work with - I mean, they had a few glad rags to wear, but they took care of those things and they were an important way to earn a better way in the world because you had to be concerned about somebody's perception.
We just enjoy our clothes and I think, for some of us, it's just a way of, I think, being more present, respected, perceived in a certain light in the greater society and it was a quicker way to really, sort of, step up.
MARTIN: Victor Holliday, thank you for joining us.
HOLLIDAY: It was my pleasure to be here with you, Michel. Thank you for asking me.
MARTIN: That was, as I said, NPR's own very stylish Victor Holliday giving his perspective on black men. And style and joining us, as I mentioned earlier, is Monica L. Miller. She is an associate professor at Barnard College and the author of "Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity."
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and happy holidays to you.
MONICA MILLER: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Your book is fascinating. You've written that the roots of black dandyism are really in the 17th and 18th centuries.
MARTIN: Started in Europe where some wealthy slave owners, just to show off their status, would dress up...
MARTIN: ...some of their slaves in very flamboyant clothing, just to show that they were so rich that they could have slaves who didn't have to do anything. So how did that then translate into the American story?
MILLER: That initial moment of black dandyism also includes not only just that kind of moment in which black people were dressed to be objects, but at the same kind of exact time, black men in particular - they learned how to appropriate or, kind of, to, kind of, flip the script - if we want to talk about it in a black tradition - flipped the script on that particular mode of degradation. So, as soon as white masters put their black slaves into this fancy dress, the black slaves realized - huh, clothing means something. I might be able to put - you know, to really restyle it in a way that might allow me to say something slightly different about myself that perhaps my master is not necessarily anticipating.
MARTIN: You know, Victor talked about, first of all, inheriting his sense of style from his father and other male...
MARTIN: ...relatives and having it be very much a part of a demand for respect.
MARTIN: What do you make of this conversation that I alluded to with my conversation with Victor that there's something about, particularly the black male style, that it's too much that evokes...
MILLER: Oh, sure.
MARTIN: ...the feelings on the part of some.
MARTIN: One of the things I learned from your book is that that conversation has existed since the 17th century.
MILLER: Oh, absolutely. I mean...
MARTIN: Well, what do you make of it?
MILLER: The moments of too much, as you said, go way back to the 17th century and one of my favorite ones has to do with kind of a more of a 19th century example. In Philadelphia, slaves who were free or who were moving north toward freedom - some people want to change their clothes into something more along the lines of, as I was saying, kind of respectable clothing. Some people just went wild with it, though, so excited about the ability to decide for themselves, would come out wearing, you know, for example, suits with all of the trimmings - right - so every accessory known to man added onto a suit and it's like...
MARTIN: You're talking about men here.
MILLER: Yeah, men. Yes, yes. So, I mean, or - you know, the suit not in a, you know, kind of somber dark blue, but the suit in a plaid. Right? The whole suit in a plaid, you know, with a different toned shoe and then a cane and then a top hat and then a watch. You know, all of this stuff, so some people took this idea to a real extreme level. The emerging black middle class community in Philadelphia were appalled by this, so one of the kind of interesting things if you look at early black newspapers - sometimes, there'll be a letter to the editor. Dear editor, I see these people, newly free black people from the south, dressing in a way that is really going to compromise our ability to seem respectable in front of other people, like we need to get this group of people who are outrageously dressed and maybe a little bit too party happy - right? We need to get this crowd under control.
MARTIN: Under control. So it's always been about freedom, in a way, expressing freedom.
MILLER: I think so. Yeah.
MARTIN: The ability to show that you are, in fact, free.
MARTIN: Tie a bow on this for me. When you see a well-dressed black man going down the street...
MARTIN: ...what would you like people to see?
MILLER: I think it's about looking and actually thinking - all right - rather than looking and not thinking - right - and sliding that person into any particular preset category. All right. I think, sometimes, the well-dressed black man coming down the street is asking you to look and think and even, sometimes, generate a new category.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
That was Monica L. Miller, the author of "Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity." She sat down with Michel Martin from member station KQED in San Francisco and you also heard NPR's very own Victor Holliday, who joined us in our Washington studio. To check out Victor and some of the other stylish TELL ME MORE and NPR affiliated black men, check out our Kings of Style slideshow. Go to our Program page at NPR.org or you can weigh in on Twitter. Use hash tag #TMM Style.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HEADLEE: Just ahead, some people play chess for the love of competition, but we'll speak with one young Ugandan champion who started playing to stay alive.
PHIONA MUTESI: Our family didn't have money and we were yearning to get, like, some food. We didn't have food at home.
HEADLEE: We speak with teenage chess star Phiona Mutesi, also known as the Queen of Katwe. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.