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I have a white colleague who owns a single pair of well-kept green corduroy slacks for all semiformal occasions. I, on the other hand, possess five nearly identical pairs of corduroys in various colors. My new brown cords match only one other item in my wardrobe: a tricolor winter cap that I had hand-crocheted to go with my orangish-tan construction boots, neither of which I have worn more than five times.
Although I am flattered by the compliments of those who acknowledge my fashion efforts, I am concerned about my vanity. I try to reassure myself with the fact that I do not buy expensive clothes, but I probably make up for it in volume. I like to assert that I dress too casually to be a “pretty boy,” but by trying to match just the right shade of oversized green sweatshirt to my camouflage fatigues, I am concentrating just as hard on dressing down as any other dandy does on dressing up. Looking through my closet worries me. Gazing from my hardly worn “interview” shirts and ties to my dozens of shoes to my hundreds of socks, I wonder what distorted sense of self-image prompted me to buy all this stuff.
I got the same uneasy feeling about vanity while reading Lloyd Boston’s Men of Color. Men of Color is a black coffee-table book, a large-sized pictorial history of African-American male fashion. And if my female co-worker’s bulging eyes are any indication, it is very successful visually. It is filled from cover to cover with photos of black men in every conceivable configuration of clothing and style, from Cab Calloway in an outrageous zoot suit to Savion Glover in T-shirt and tap shoes.
Like most fashion pictorials, Color is great for flipping through. Stargazers can fixate on original shots of Lenny Kravitz’s glam-rock posing, Bryant Gumbel’s boyish pleasantness, or a Kangol-topped Samuel Jackson’s mean-mugging the camera. All the contemporary flavors of chocolate eye candy are represented. The historic photography is as tasteful and much more engaging. The black-and-white shots from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s represent moments in African-American life that Boston’s minimal captions only begin to detail. For a young black man like me, the many photos of luminaries such as Miles Davis, Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson are reaffirming—and not because of what they’re wearing. When I first flipped through Men of Color, I was inspired by these images. It was only when I delved into the text that I began to get that uneasy feeling, the same feeling I get when I look on my shelf at my beige Nikes, which, despite being too small, I bought anyway to match my recently purchased beige fisherman hat.
The structure of the book is simple and repetitive. It hinges on black male entertainers as the pioneers of fashion. There are sections on jazz, R&B, stage & screen, dance, hiphop, and rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz is linked with pants, dance with shoes, rock ‘n’ roll with hair, and so on. Each section consists of some opening text, an interview with a celebrity regarding the importance of some item of clothing, an essay from a guest writer, another celebrity interview, and some “expert advice” from a fashion designer.
Boston’s writing is pure hype, forever congratulating the black man on maintaining his superior fashion sense through years of discrimination and oppression. The general premise of Color is stated late in the book by this decade’s reigning king of shameless self-promotion: Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs says, “Today, like back then, brothers can wear just about anything and pull it off.” The other celebrity interviews follow suit, allowing each star to drone on about his personal attire. Many of these spotlights are mind-numbingly dull or simply pretentious. Ed Bradley’s segment is both: “I can wear anything, from a custom-made Saville [sic] Row suit, to Versace or Armani couture, to a pair of Gap overalls.” While attempting to sound more casual, Bryant Gumbel engages in embarrassing name-dropping. He notes, “I’ve always dressed first and foremost to please myself. My choices just so happen to fit into the norm. I love clothing by my good friend, Joseph Abboud.” What with such pretensions and its guest essayists’ heaping equal praise on Little Richard’s effeminate coif and Malcolm X’s horn-rimmed glasses, the whole book comes together like an open love letter to the black man.
The problem with this letter is that the love is unconditional. Not once is a downside addressed. The “it’s all good” mentality of the book’s writer does not allow for the possibility that black men’s love of fashion can be at times obsessive and detrimental. In high school, I worked at a grocery store with another guy who wore nothing but Ralph Lauren clothing, the preferred style of the moment for young black b-boys in New York. One day he was showing me a brand new Polo wristwatch; the next week he was arrested for stealing from the store down the street. In all of Boston’s praise of Michael Jordan’s sleek, self-named basketball shoe, he never mentions how common it once was to be robbed, beaten up, and/or shot for a pair of Air Jordans or a Starter jacket in the late ’80s. Even without considering these extremes, it is obvious that, as my friend with the single pair of green cords knows, the time, money, and effort black men spend trying to look good might be more rewardingly spent elsewhere.
Surprisingly, hat-obsessed sex symbol LL Cool J is one of the few Men of Color to acknowledge this conundrum: “No matter what’s going on in our community, African Americans in general find a way to look decent. Even when we have no money, we still manage to get the kinds of clothes we want. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, I don’t know what it says about our priorities. But it’s interesting how important it is to Black men to look right. It says a lot about the image we want to project.”
Rather than serve as a jumping-off point for an honest discussion of the topic, LL’s comments only highlight the fact that Boston never wanted any trouble. His fascination with the visual smooths over any cracks below the surface in a way that makes Men of Color seem disingenuous. Billy Dee Williams’ bold statement about his chemically processed ‘do certainly warrants comment: “I never liked natural hair on me. It just didn’t look right, and it was hard to comb. It’s interesting how people think straightening your hair is somehow the equivalent of rejecting your racial origin. I disagree.” In his chapter on hair, Boston discusses the era of straightened hair along with the natural look of the ’60s and ’70s. He deliberately refuses to take a stand on the issue other than to say that the hairstylists he consulted “do not advocate the process.”
It is also troubling that Tommy Hilfiger is the only white designer, the only white person of any kind, whose picture and words appear in the book titled Men of Color. Boston does not ‘fess up to the fact that Hilfiger’s company is one of the book’s primary sponsors, or that Boston himself is the company’s current vice president of art direction. Instead, he alleges that Hilfiger is included simply because “his clothes appeal to an enormously wide range of consumers.”
Lloyd Boston smoothes over every bump of controversy until Page 219, where Men of Color comes to a screeching halt: Jesse Jackson begins, “The men of substance who I have encountered over the years are not remembered for the clothes they wore, but for a sermon they gave or a statement they made.” He goes on to undermine the entire platform on which the book is based: “Frankly, for many of our people, style has become a substitute for substance, resulting in some of the poorest people wearing some of the most expensive clothes. Unfortunately, our tastes often assure self-esteem deficits. Just look at the statistics: We drink the highest-priced Scotch,” (Men of Color is also sponsored by Johnny Walker Black Label) “drive the most expensive cars. Wealthy people don’t wear their dollars like that. Look at President Clinton—he’s an American president and he wears plain suits. We overcompensate, covering up a deep feeling of inferiority.”
It is confusing why Boston even includes these remarks, since he basically ignores them. Instead, he follows up with a chapter on accessories and an interview with vacuous male model Tyson Beckford, whose insight stretches this far: “My double-breasted navy-blue pinstriped suit reminds me of the Black style of the forties. It says gangster and sexy at the same time.” As if that is not anticlimactic enough, the book ends thus: “Those in arts-oriented fields, such as music or film, may have more leeway with heavy link chains, i.d. bracelets, even various piercings.”
By including but not answering what is in essence a sound challenge to his premise from one of the black community’s pre-eminent representatives, Boston is backing away from a fight. He is admitting that there may be darker issues behind the black man’s need to appear stylish, but he does not wish to be caught up in any sticky debate that might bring down the tone of his book. The uneasiness I feel when reading Boston’s words or even looking objectively at my own wardrobe arises because I am uncomfortable defining my self-worth through my dress code. Russell Simmons, Gregory Hines, Cornell West, and the other men Boston profiles in Men of Color are worthy of recognition not simply because of their outer appearances. In choosing to focus on that aspect of black men’s character, Boston is missing out on the real celebration.