Know Your News Cycle: The Dapper Dan Debate
Editor's Note: Dapper Dan stands as a perennial icon within the field of fashion studies and dress history—a key figure that in-the-know scholars reference in order to ground discussions on everything from "logomania," to luxury fashion, to the enduring influences of little-known visionary black designers. Dap, however, was only recently catapulted into the wider public consciousness when he became the unwitting inspiration for Gucci's Cruise 2018 collection in which the brand's creative director, Alessandro Michele, referenced (or better, ripped off) the Harlem couturier's iconic puff-sleeve Louis Vuitton creation. Astute fashion scholars were quick to call out Gucci's blatant opportunism, and fierce debates broke out on social media about who is allowed to reference whom in this post-(post-?)modern fashion climate. These debates only reached a boiling point, however, when The Business of Fashion published a highly controversial op-ed with the incendiary title, "Why Fashion Needs Cultural Appropriation." (In case there is any lingering confusion here, it doesn't.)
This controversy is notable for a number of reasons—not least of which being how Dapper Dan's work continues to bolster scholarly discourse, this time inspiring an important conversation about what is and what isn't cultural appropriation. In the reading list below—the first in a new Weeklies series we're calling "Know Your News Cycle"—FSJ contributor Rikki Byrd synthesizes the discourse by bringing together all of the most important takes on this controversy, while including some supplementary readings for those of you who might be interested in a more scholarly take on the matter.
“Harlem Chic” by Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker
Sanneh wrote this piece in 2013, and arguably reintroduced Dapper Dan into the public eye. It is a great introduction to Dapper Dan if you are still interested in pieces of his story.
“Speaking with the Woman Who Wore the Infamous Dapper Dan Coat” by Lindsay Peoples, New York Magazine’s The Cut
One of the most famed photographs of Dapper Dan’s designs is of Olympic gold medalist Diane Dixon in a fur coat with Louis Vuitton puffer sleeves. It is also the coat that Gucci replicated for its 2018 cruise collection. The Cut’s Lindsay People’s spoke with Dixon to publish this first-person account of what it was like to wear one of Dapper Dan’s designs.
“Fashion Does Not Need Cultural Appropriation” by Dario Calmese, Business of Fashion
Dario Calmese responds to a rather tone-deaf op-ed published on Business of Fashion that attempted to make the case for the benefits of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. He makes the argument that Dapper Dan’s ingenuity has a historical stake in the black American experience – that black people have always used innovation as a protest against systems and a country that has at every turn attempted to oppress them. Calmese also argues that fashion is entangled in colonialism in the ways in which it its recurrent practice of exploitation. His solution? “Fashion needs to figure out why it’s bored with itself.
“The Fashion Outlaw” by Barry Michael Cooper, The New York Times
This was the first (and up until this reading list being published, only) article that included an interview with Dapper Dan that followed the Gucci debacle. Here, a spokesperson from Gucci tells The New York Times that they have reached out to Dapper Dan and he confirms. The article reads as an addendum to Sanneh’s article for The New Yorker with more recent updates, including a mention of Dapper Dan’s work being featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Gucci, Dapper Dan and How the Fashion Industry Fails Black People” by Faith Cummings, Teen Vogue
Cummings uses the film Get Out as a thread throughout her op-ed on not only Gucci and Dapper Dan, but the endless conversation on cultural appropriation. She writes of the innovations by black people, but how often those creations are in relation to the lack of access and praise that fails to be lauded in an industry that takes and takes from the black body until there is nothing left. This particular excerpt resonates greatly, as there are undertones of Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table and a quote by the late Shirley Chisholm: “Yet, we — the ideators — are still struggling to garner a seat at the table. Even though we've oft built the table ourselves.
Elena Romero, Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry (Praeger 2012)
Elena Romero is perhaps one of the few scholars (if not only, from my knowledge) who has written the most comprehensive text to-date considering the intersection of fashion and hip hop. In Free Stylin’, she considers the role that fashion played in the evolution of hip hop, interviews prominent urbanwear designers, as well as considers the role that brands helmed by white designers such as Tommy Hilfiger profited from temporarily marketing to black urban youth. She discusses Dapper Dan in Chapter 6 of the book titled “Tailor-Made.”
Miles White, From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity (University of Illinois Press, 2011)
“Commodity culture replaces people with objects and their histories with hegemonic narratives that obfuscate colonial oppression,” writes Miles White in his text From Jim Crow to Jay-Z. White is interrogating the performance of black masculinity/hypermasculinity through the lens of hip-hop. He is looking at blackness as a cultural export – “a tool to sell everything” – and the black male body that personifies blackness. It is a great text to read to consider the construction, consumption and performance of the black body in the mainstream as it relates to ubiquitous conversations such as cultural appropriation.
Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness (University of Chicago Press 2011)
Chapter 4 of Fleetwood’s text, “I Am King: Hip-Hop Culture, Fashion Advertising, and the Black Male Body” considers the iconography of the black male in hip hop. She argues for a shift from Fashion Studies’ focus on white womenswear and argues instead for a consideration of black masculinity. In the chapter she applies a textual analysis, reading and (re)reading advertisements created by urbanwear brands such as Phat Farm and Sean John and the subversive strategies that the are being employed in the production of these images that use predominantly black and latino male models. It’s an excellent addendum into the curiosity of the rise and fall of urbanwear with a specific case study into image-making.
Nancy Leong, “Racial Capitalism” in Harvard Law Review, Volume 126, No. 8 (2013)
Leong defines racial capitalism as “the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person.” The article is not about fashion, hip hop or black culture, and instead offers a more analytical approach to thinking more critically through cultural appropriation. She writes, when nonwhite individuals (pushes the public to see them as diverse (think Gucci producing an all-black advertising campaign) it results in “deflecting potential charges of racism and avoiding more difficult questions of racial equality.”
Van Dyk Lewis, Dilemmas in African Diaspora Fashion in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture (2003)
The article’s title quite literally speaks to its context: Lewis outlines the various dilemmas faced by black designers. He discusses black imagery, black style, and black cultural production, all of which at different times and in different places has succumbed to being preyed upon by dominant cultures. He writes that protest for Diaspora fashion and all its creativity remains inadequate for people “whose image is often misread, misrepresented, and treated as a style trend.” A great read to consider why designers such as Dapper Dan, despite their ingenuity and impact, still have very limited access and success in the fashion industry.
Stuart Hall, “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture” in Black Popular Culture (The New Press 1998)
Hall discusses his curiosity of black people’s claim to using “black” as a signifier. He grapples with this writing that holding on tight to “black” can be detrimental, writing: “The moment the signifier ‘black’ is torn from its historical, cultural, and political embedding and lodged in a biologically constituted racial category, we valorize, by inversion, the very ground of the racism we are trying to deconstruct.” Yet, he still argues for its importance: “Black people have used their bodies as if it is the only cultural capital we have. We have worked on ourselves as the canvases of representation.” This essay is worth reading and reading again in conversations surrounding the black body in both the mainstream and within sites of the African diaspora.
Robin M. Chandler and Nuri Chandler-Smith, Flava in Ya Gear: Transgressive Politics and Influence of Hip Hop on Contemporary Fashion,” in Dress, Body, Culture (2005)
Robin M. Chandler and Nuri Chandler-Smith argue that “the only element of our image that we have fully controlled: [is] our style,” and thus take to task thinking through the relationship between the evolution of hip hop and fashion. They think through pivotal moments in hip hop such as gangsta rap, what they call the “bling bling” culture that evolved among hip-hop artists, and the codification of black culture. It is a great addendum to Elena Romero’s text in that Chandler and Chandler-Smith focus more specifically on the styling practices within hip-hop.
Thumbnail Image Credit: Olympic gold and silver medalist Diane Dixon, in Dapper Dan, 1988, DapperDanOfHarlem.com.