A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Harlem Dandy: A Rich History That Encompasses Black Dandyism

The Uptown Dandy and Big Vic circa 1985(?)
Matching boutonnieres and, oh yes, that's a 3-piece suit at around 10 years old.

I'm always slightly annoyed by these articles that crop up periodically that create the false narrative that men's style has been hibernating somewhere in a dormant state, but now, thanks to the efforts of [fill in the name of our new sartorial savior here], style is back. Much like the clockwork-like trumpeting of the return of the doublebreasted or 3-button suit, I often find myself wondering whether I'm 10 years ahead of the curve or 10 years behind it.

[Note: My father has a closet full of guayaberas in a rainbow of colors. Opening his closet door is like entering the Puerto Rican Charvet. This would put him roughly 40 years ahead of said curve.]

Most recently, several people suggested that I read the New York Times article about the Street Etiquette blog. The piece seemed to follow the same narrative mold - burgeoning dandies adrift amongst a sea of unenlightened simpletons.

Now, I have stopped by that blog every now and then. While I'm not as big of a fan of the 1950s prep look (if you don't know by now, I have a soft spot for the golden age of men's clothing: the 1920s and 1930s), I can appreciate the aesthetic, and I certainly have individual clothing items that could be characterized as vintage trad (I recently came across a pristine houndstooth raglan overcoat with huge leather buttons, half-lined, from that long-ago bastion of New York men's clothiers, Rogers Peet). So while I'm not a huge fan, I do like some of the articles of clothing that they choose to focus on, and I must say their photography skills are truly impressive - basically, its a pretty nice site.

While I understand the author's attempt to diagram a linear heritage dating back to Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s as an example of a "black dandyism" that has "run through generations of black American style", this omits so much of what made Harlem unique at that time by simply referring to the Harlem Renaissance - which of course carries with it a decidedly African-American overtone (no one associates Owney Madden with the Harlem Renaissance despite the fact that he owned the Cotton Club - and rightfully so, as the term "Harlem Renaissance" is not meant to include Irish gangsters who doubled as nightclub owners in their spare time).

Precisely because Harlem was a melting pot for sartorial dandies of all ethnicities from all walks of life, particularly the colorful, larger than life racketeers of the era, a more robust discussion would focus on white racketeers like Vincent Coll as well as latinos like Alejandro Pompez, known as El Cubano. Owner of the New York Cubans, a negro league baseball team, Pompez was also one of the more successful policy banker in Harlem. Eventually taken over when Dutch Schultz muscled into Harlem's numbers racket, Pompez was a noted dandy of the era. Always nattily attired, he was subpoenaed to testify at James J. Hines' corruption trial in 1938 and arrived to testify in a white summer suit with matching Panama straw (more on Pompez later).

While the writers and musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance are no doubt worthy of even sartorial accolades - in the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was a diverse community in which people of Irish, Jewish, Caribbean, and African-American descent mixed together. As some of the only people with money in their pockets after the Depression settled over the country, the racketeers were actually in a position to indulge their sartorial appetites.

In any event, a great piece for the young men of Street Etiquette. However, let's keep in mind that Harlem's vibrant and robust history of dandyism should not be confined to racial demographics as simplistic as "black" or "white".


  1. I may not be the target audience for your blog, but It always a great informative read.

    Ps Vic's pic is old school gold baby!

  2. As always, a great read. Now you need to post some of the other "latino dandyism" pics I have seen in the past.
    i.e. A B/W pic of you in a newsies hat!

  3. I can't help but think that there is a wider series of articles to be produced from this; I always enjoy seeing movements framed within a wider context

    Well played,


  4. Hey fellas,
    Thanks for the comments - just getting back into the swing of things. . . Irene really pulled a number on us out here! In response to your comments:

    (1) Big Vic is pure old school gold baby. All-day, everyday.

    (2) I'll try to break out some of my photos soon - I need to do a re-enactment of my jazz lawn party outfit since I forgot to get a pic from the party. I should also have a post coming soon on one of the old school Harlem dandies. . .

    (3) Bon - thanks for the kind words. I agree - I think there's definitely room to expand the conversation!

    Thanks again to all for taking the time to post comments!