These essays were inspired by Kate/Kade’s Butch Please article, Butch Gets Dressed.
by Anita Dolce Vita, dapperQ Managing Editor
“Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.” This quote, which has been attributed to French artist Jean Cocteau, really reflects much of what we are trying to convey through our work at dapperQ, a fashion and empowerment website for the unconventionally masculine. dapperQ, similar to other queer blogs today and that have come before, has been criticized because some feel that having a fashion focus is “consumerist” and/or “superficial.” But, as Cocteau’s quote so brilliantly points out, our clothing is symbolic, a mode of non-verbal communication that helps us convey complex things to others about who we are as individuals, about our cultures, about our societies; in a way, clothing/fashion/style is a language. (Yes, these three concepts are different, but we are speaking more generally here.) We hope to move beyond talking simply about brands and trends to opening up a dialogue about how and what we communicate non-verbally via our clothes. Or, as Elisa Glick points out, “…gay style is not seen as an abandonment of politics, but rather the site of political engagement.”
According to the New York Times, the growing scientific field of “embodied cognition” has revealed that “we think not just with our brains but with our bodies….and our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts. Now it appears that those experiences include the clothes we wear.” So, fashion/style/clothing as a language (or part of a larger language), not only communicates many things to external observers, but also impacts how we perceive ourselves.
dapperQ recognizes that clothing/fashion/style, like a spoken or non-verbal language, is not created in a vacuum. It impacts and is impacted by cultures, societies, and a world full of love, hope, creativity, regional nature, and wildly beautiful human diversity and simultaneously full of hate, misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, fat-phobia, and many other isms/phobias. Thus, the motivation behind why one individual decides to dress the way they dress is not black or white.
There are many reasons why a particular individual dresses the way they dress. Yes, one reason may be to emulate the dominant culture in an effort to gain acceptance or fit normative expectations. But that may not always be one of many reasons that an individual chooses a particular style of dress/clothing. Other reasons may include using style as a form of protest; claiming or reclaiming a specific style of dress; adopting a style of dress to express individual personality; choosing clothing that fits well or is functional; using clothing to expand the definitions of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; etc. Whatever the reasons, the clothing always carries a message, be it intended or unintended.
The goal of our website has always been to provide much needed visibility, resources, and role-models for masculine gender-queers, or anyone else who has been told by society that menswear and masculinity is “off limits” to them. We emphasize that there is no right way of being dapper. Our readers have a broad range of style icons that inspire them: Rachel Maddow, David Bowie, Kanye West, James Dean, Murray Hill, Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Bieber, Pharrell, Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra, Rocco Katasrophe, A$AP Rocky, and, yes, even the consummate dandy dapper Janelle Monae, to name a few.
In a recent Butch Please post on Autostraddle, Kate provided a personal critique of the dandy dapper queer aesthetic, stating:
“If butchness and butch desirability has its own power structure, dapper butch is at the top, which makes sense in a twisted and sad way when you think that rich educated white men, the thing that dapper butch is meant to emulate (either ironically or not – in so many cases I think a critical commentary is no longer in play or being utilized) are at the top of the macro version of that power structure.
Like so many other parts of queer masculinity, dapper feels good. It feels good to dress dapper because I know I will be immediately accepted by queers and non-queers alike. I know I will be considered attractive, I will be able to navigate queer spaces with complete ease, and my masculinity will not be questioned.”
It is true that in some corners of the U.S., the dapper/dandy aesthetic is the queer style du jour. And, while Kate’s personal experience deserves to be respected as valid and true to Kate, it does not represent all of the experiences and perspectives of those who dress dandy dapper queer.
Many of our readers have actually been shunned, rather than “immediately accepted,” for dressing dapper – not just for dressing masculine, but specifically for dressing dapper. Some of our contributors and readers of color have been harassed and have had their race, ethnicity, and/or masculinity called into question by members of their community, both straight and queer, for dressing “too bougie,” claims that only perpetuate normative stereotypes that there is only one right way of dressing if you’re a POC. One reader recalled visiting home for holiday and being laughed at by her AG friends because her perfectly tailored button-down shirt was “too tight” in their opinion; they immediately took her to the mall to purchase some sagging jeans and an oversized t-shirt. This reader went along with it because she didn’t want to be considered a “sell out.” Another reader shared a story about how her partner had asked her to dress less dapper when going to meet her partner’s friends for the first time because dressing too dapper might impact their “street cred.”
These experiences are not isolated to QPOC by any means. We have had countless conversations with both QPOC and white-identified dapperQs who purposely “dress down” or change their dapper styles to fit the hipster aesthetic that is so popular and at the top of the power structure in queer communities in larger cities like New York. A reader sent us an e-mail asking where she could find skinny jeans that fit her curves, not because she liked wearing skinny jeans, but because she felt pressure to dress more hipster when she went out to queer bars, even though she preferred the way that a pair of relaxed khakis fit her body and the way that a bow-tie, rather than a sleeve of tattoos, reflected her nerd-cool personality.
Conversely, many of our readers have been empowered by dressing dapper, not because they found acceptance by emulating the dominant culture, but for some of these and other previously listed reasons about why individuals might dress the way they dress: because it is a form of in-your-face protest; because there is now increased access to a form of performance art that had been previously denied to them; because they may find a blazer and slacks to be more flattering on their shape than a tank and skinny jeans; because they have professional jobs that call for business attire and will no longer tolerate wearing a skirt to work; because it defies racial stereotypes; because they enjoy thrifting for one-of-a-kind vintage pieces; because they identify more with the academic dapper afro + suit + tie look of Cornel West than the homogenous faces in Tiger Beat; and so on and so forth.
Dandy has gone through various incarnations from its origins in 18th century Britain to modern day interpretations, as documented in RISD’s Artist/Rebel/Dandy exhibition featuring the stylings of a diverse range of icons including W.E.B. Du Bois, John Waters and Patti Smith. Each manifestation brings new voices, new perspectives, new interpretations. For example, in her book Slaves to Fashion, Barnard Collage Associate Professor Monica L. Miller documents the unique history of black dandyism. andré m. carrington’s review of Miller’s book notes, “the black dandy also furnishes indispensable varieties of female masculinity with which to style the revolution… DuBois suggests, as a black dandy patriarch, that black and darker peoples might freely choose to love and enjoy modes of dress and self-presentation that feminize men and masculinize women, much to the consternation of critics who would strip his peculiar wedding of aesthetics and politics of its decisively racial accoutrements.”
Queers too have played and continue to play an important role in these new manifestations, expanding the definitions of dapper, pushing its boundaries, and contributing to its ever-changing history. Elisa Glick’s Materializing Queer Desire notes, “The queer black dandy’s rebellion against the culture of capitalism gives birth to a new aesthetic that combines the naturalized simplicity and vigor of primitivism with the artifice of decadence – making legible a distinctly African American incarnation of the new forms of desire, identity, and community emerging in modern, urban culture.” Furthermore, Glick acknowledges that lesbian artists, such as Renee Vivian, Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Radclyffe Hall “drew upon the traditions of dandyism and decadent aesthetics ‘as part of a desire to make a newly emerging lesbian identity publically visible’” and explains that the lesbian dandy has been “conceptualized in opposition to the sterility and uniformity of mass culture, even as she is portrayed as the quintessentially modern, new woman.”
The Economist author N.L. said of the various interpretations of punk style, “But the point, always, is to flout convention. It is a way to tell the world what you think of it without ever saying a single word.” This can be true of rebel style in general, and for many, dressing dapper queer is rebelling, rather than conforming.
So, what does it mean for a queer to rock a bow-tie? It depends. A bow-tie can take on a variety of meanings and can be perceived as negative or positive, empowering or oppressive, depending on the culture or subculture. The embodied cognition study published in the New York Times also found that “If you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. But if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.” Same coat, different meaning…
Next: Dapper Became Me
Dapper Became Me
by Blakeley Calhoun of Qwear
The origins of dapper style are so scattered that no one person could ever definitively conclude that one race or class or culture started it all. Before the late 20th century, there was an unwillingness of scholars to give credit to non-white and/or non-heterosexual persons for their work (for example, in the age of Motown white musicians would take songs that were written by black musicians and groups and claim them as their own). As a result, movements were, and still are, associated with and credited to a “white male elite.” The history of fashion, particularly dapper fashion, reflects this trend. It is unfortunate that many people only associate dapperness with maleness, richness and whiteness. History tells us that non-heterosexual and non-white men and women of all socioeconomic statuses have been dressing dapper for just as long, if not longer, as the “white male elite.” The mission of this piece is to problematize the association of dapperness with the cisgendered white male elite.
Let’s start with some non-stereotypically dapper people. Elements of dapper style can be found within the Harlem Renaissance (1920s). For example, Gladys Bentley was a prominent singer of the Harlem Renaissance. Bentley performed in various nightclubs around Harlem. She was known for her many girlfriends and her dapper attire. Anna May Wong is considered to be the first Chinese-American movie star. She was no stranger to dapper style. And of course, , Langston Hughes..
When I was researching for this post, I Googled, “men of the 1920s” for inspiration. I was almost 5 pages in before I saw a person of color. The problem with associating dapperness with a white male elite is that it glosses over decades and decades of history. A history that takes some work to uncover. Dapper style should not be tied to whiteness. Dapper style should not be tied to richness. Dapper style should not be tied to maleness. By stereotyping dress, we perpetuate the erasure of the contributions of queer people, people of color, and other minorities to fashion. When I dress dapper, I don’t think that I am reinterpreting a particular style. If anything, I am going against societal expectations for how a woman should dress. However, reinterpreting suggests that I am taking a style that is foreign to my culture and incorporating it into my everyday wear, which is simply not true.
My entire life I have been wearing things that I was “not supposed to wear.” I wore Vans and tennis shoes in elementary school. The former created quite the stir. At the time, no other Black 10-year-olds in my school (there were only about 5 of us) dared to dabble in the “I don’t know how to ride a skateboard but I watch the X Games” skater style that was gaining popularity with the other kids at school. I didn’t care. I wanted to fit in, so I bought some Vans. I was that kid. I didn’t want to stand out so I made damn sure that I stayed on top of a trend. When I wasn’t wearing Vans, I was wearing tennis shoes. I never wore women’s shoes growing up. I liked the colors on the men’s shoes more than the pink and purple varieties I was supposed to like. Soon I was in high school and people were growing up style wise – some girls got push-up bras, most started to wear make-up. My style stayed the same- t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. When I was feeling particularly fancy I threw on a cardigan.
The acceptability of my tomboy phase began to disappear. I was getting too old, it was time to femme up. But I fought back. My mom would buy me low-cut shirts – to me low cut was anything more than one inch below the neck – that I stubbornly safety-pinned shut. I didn’t want to show my body; I wasn’t ready for the male gaze that my body invited. Dapper style gave me an out.
It wasn’t until recently, some time in the past two years, that I found my style niche. In 2011, I began my first year in college at an institution that values bow ties over most things. We dress up for football games and everyone owns a blue blazer and boat shoes. Moreover, aesthetics are just as important as your GPA here. My t-shirts and cardigans were not going to make the cut. I took the number seven bus to Belk, bought some button downs, a pair of khakis and tie. I dressed out of desperation. I wore bow ties and button downs because they look nice, but more importantly because I wanted everyone to know that I wasn’t straight (baby gay seeking other baby gays). It was a big turning point in my life. I found comfort in my dapperness. I’m not sure if my new clothes made me feel empowered, but for the first time in my life, I did not feel disempowered. Dapper became me.
My ancestors were neither white nor rich. They did not attend Ivy League schools. In fact, very few of them were “educated” in formal institutions. But they didn’t wear sweat suits to work; they wore suits. They were dapper in every sense of the word. And so I, their descendants, should be able to dress in any manner I choose and not have it reflect a white tradition of wealth and masculinity. Dapperness does not belong to any one culture. I shouldn’t have to “reclaim” my dapper style. It was all of ours to begin with.
About Blakeley Calhoun: I’m a 19 year old college student that is obsessed with fashion, Florence Welch, and bow ties. I love my dog more than I love most people. I talk to my dog more than I talk to most people. I watch the Golden Girls on Friday nights (well every night but Friday in particular). Paris is Burning is the best documentary ever created. I answer plus-size questions for qwear.tumblr.com. I am currently the co-president of the Queer Student Union at my university. I like nautical themed things but I’m not sure why. In addition, one day I hope to be a professor. I have a hard time not using ‘I’ statements. None of the previous sentences seem to be connected in any way and that’s essentially the best way to describe me-lots of random tidbits trapped on one plus size queer.”