What I do know is that I want to help define the black canon. Draw lines around it and say, this is it. Because I think that until we better understand the ways it converges and diverges from the white canon we all know and measure ourselves against, black creatives and intellectuals will never be able to drop the prefix. And as far as we might get in our chosen fields, when what’s written and said about us leads with ‘black,’ we’re never going to transcend race. Brilliant black minds will continue to exist parallel to. And as long as that’s the case we’re always being ‘allowed in,’ if you know what I mean. Power doesn’t reside with us: it relies on the magnanimousness of the white canon. I think we need to outline and celebrate black culture, focus on black people, distinguish the black canon first. That’s step one.
It is a well-known fact that if you go shopping with a particular item in mind, you’ll never find what you were looking for. The pursuit of love, similarly, is more a game of luck than design; the partnerships we form in life begin in inauspicious circumstances, and expectations never fail to give way to different kinds of realities. When reflecting on the expression of masculinity through dress, the lens through which women see their boyfriends, husbands and lovers is a useful refraction then, and one which illuminates how vital one gender is in the making of the other. So to better understand the complexities surrounding how we see men, I met five women, aged between seventeen and eighty, and asked them to speak about their significant other’s clothing.
Carlo is concerned about his looks; it’s important to him how his ‘outer shell’ – his coat – appears. Decent clothes make it easier to earn money, easier to approach people on a more or less equal level. But the coat also comes with a second purpose: it’s the smallest possible of homes, a sleeping bag and a comforter. ‘Since childhood we’re used to feeling something on top of us when we’re sleeping, something heavy,’ he says. ‘Turning a coat into a duvet is better than wearing it, somehow. It feels more secure and warm.’
What lesson are we to take from this evidence of profiteering from human servitude in the foundational years of Brooks Brothers? This is a question that other American institutions are being asked recently. Perhaps due to their nature as loci of inquiry and self-reflection, many universities have been on the forefront of exploring their connections to slavery and atoning for the ways in which they profited from the labour and sale of enslaved peoples. Brooks Brothers, and other for-profit entities, have not.
How pitiful the Muses’ hapless suitor
A stranger to the dressing gown’s delights.
A devotee of fashion, dressed up like a doll
And flushed with decorous excitement,
Comes to his study as if entering a ball.
His colours rouge and powder-white;
In aromatic ink he dips
His quill, and drafts a madrigal.
I never knew when or what I was going to lift. The Time to Take was a calm, concrete feeling that would spread like room temperature butter on toast. Walking around the store, my body would casually scan for cameras, peruse the aisles, and when the time was right, I’d surrender to an emancipation pure and brief: a feeling much like leaving the stove on while attending to a phone call in the other room. And though I knew what I liked, it usually wasn’t what ended up mine: somewhere I think I knew that if I began to rely on this method to fuel my actual desires, I’d be losing my own game. This was not about the things themselves, of course. Every so often I had to remind myself that they had no value, and that like most shoplifters, I lost attraction to them soon after attainment. To take was to feel oneself justifiably tampering with a system to find that it is the system itself that is flawed — a bit like opening a lock with the wrong set of keys.
‘They’ decide everything. ‘They’ know whether it is to be pink or green this fall, whether it’s to be short skirts, whether you can wear mink. For years everyone who thinks has gone around at one time or another trying to find out in a desultory sort of way who ‘they’ are. One of the most fascinating things about the world of fashion is that practically no one knows who inhabits it or why it exists. There are a few people who know how it works, but they won’t tell. So it just goes on, getting in deeper and deeper, until something like a war or depression slows it up from time to time. But once the war or the depression lets up, off again goes fashion on its mad way.