Wading through an (overdue) article revision has taken up a lot of time these last two weeks. Lifted my head yesterday and came across this fashion spread in the NYT, this blog, and this short film. Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi are the writers / designers / stylists / retailers behind it all. They are 22 years old and their site receives a breathtaking 20,000 hits per day. From the NYTimes article on the college students and fashion phenoms:
“As opposed to the fascistically frozen street-style snaps of The Sartorialist and others, these pictures are styled and plotted fictions but also affecting ones, depicting a pair of young black men taking ownership not just of the body and what goes on it, but also of the environment it moves in. No one ever smiles on Street Etiquette: there’s business to attend to.
A new generation of black fashion entrepreneurs is emerging […], among them Mr. Theodore of Brooklyn Circus; Brian and Autumn Merritt of Sir & Madame in Chicago; Ontario Armstrong and Clifton Wilson of Armstrong & Wilson in Philadelphia and several others.
“We wanted to give a different perception of the young black man,” said Mr. Armstrong, whose company specializes in pocket squares made from outlandish fabrics and embellished with buttons.
The new dandies are found on sites like Guerreisms or Aveder Outfit, the site of Cleon Grey, a frequent photographer for Street Etiquette. Since its March introduction, Aveder Outfit has quickly become a thrilling repository of bold and natty black styles. Mr. Grey first came across Street Etiquette while in college. “My initial reaction was, ‘This makes me proud to be a black man,’ ” he said.
Street Etiquette began mostly as a way of cataloging the duo’s taste; it was several months before they appeared on it themselves. Now, though, the Street Etiquette aesthetic is finely honed: echoes of civil rights-era style, the Malian portrait photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé and images of historically black colleges in the mid-20th century. Each shoot is treated like a magazine spread, with hundreds of photos winnowed down to a select few for the blog. And while the two men are often shot individually, the photos gain power when they are united.
“It’s the mise-en-scène, the whole package,” said Monica Miller, a Barnard English professor and the author of “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity.” “It’s not just the clothes. It’s the body that’s wearing the clothing and the disposition of the body, how the body inhabits the clothes. It’s asking the viewer to construct a narrative about that black male body.”
“Black Ivy” was Street Etiquette’s “most involved shoot and narrative to date” (again, see here and here). The spread depicts an all black (and all male) ivy league campus that the Times describes as “post-subversion.” This may be a bit far afield from the film fare that normally finds its way onto this blog, but an important set of questions emerge between Street Etiquette’s visual market/mise-en-scene and Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. Livingston’s film depicts the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities who live at the margins of 1980s NYC and come together in the underground “ball” culture. Key scene here:
Paris is Burning (Livingston, 1990)
What strikes me (and deserves a longer post) are the resemblances. Both the ball culture of 1980s NYC and the fashion community of Street Etiquette present social/class categories (e.g. the ivy league college student) as fantasy, performance, and mise-en-scene. The “Black Ivy” is a flexible narrative that we are invited to write, a film trailer, a set of accessories accompanied by a sound track. It is not a reality that we are asked to believe in.
But Street Etiquette’s surface fantasies of social and cultural mobility nevertheless conceal actual upward mobility: an empire of vintage commodities built online. In Livingston’s film, we listen to the desires and demands of the ball-goers with the crushing knowledge that they will go unfulfilled (“I want to be famous,” “I want my name to be a household product,” “I want to be rich,” I want my sex change.”). In Street Etiquette’s film (as Joekenneth Museau tells us), things are “never, yet always fabricated.” The wealth you see is both real and not real.
And then there is the history/inheritance ascribed to the project by the NYTimes, Mos Def, Miller, the makers themselves: civil rights style, mid-century modernism, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. The queer histories and identities of black GBT men are curiously elided, replaced with a kind of vague insistence upon flexible, multiple masculinities. Among the multiple are the masculinities that masqueraded underground, on the runway…