Donning a prom gown, a pair of paint-spattered overalls, or a fur coat sends strong messages about the wearer’s social status, values and sense of style. So what was the significance of African slaves dressed by their eighteenth-century English masters in silks and lace, Associate Professor of English Monica L. Miller wondered. And why was calling a black man a “dandy” a slight?

Her research, begun as a graduate dissertation at Dartmouth more than a decade ago, culminated in Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 2009). The Modern Language Association has awarded the book its 2011 William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an outstanding scholarly work on black American literature or culture. Miller has been teaching at Barnard since 2000.

What launched your research? In graduate school, I was taking a class with Cornel West on W.E.B. Du Bois. I ran across a footnote about a cartoon ridiculing Du Bois as a dandy. The image I had of him was of a very serious intellectual, one responsible for the image of the race. I was curious about that critique.

How did clothing become a racially charged tool of social assessment? In New Orleans and South Carolina in colonial times, sumptuary laws prevented masters from giving slaves silk clothing. A slave in fancy clothing could be read as trying to be like his master or trying to mock his master—or trying to be like African nobility. One of the most fun parts of the book for me was to research ads for runaway and escaped slaves that listed the things servants took with them—all kinds of clothing, wigs, jackets. Clothing was really important because slaves were marked by it. Slaves on plantations got new clothing only seasonally; those who wanted to pass as free needed to dress on a higher level.

Did you discover any highlights of African-American fashion? The Harlem Renaissance is seen as the height of style for black Americans. A lot of that revision had to do with a new presentation of the black body. And this is where Du Bois came in again. It turns out that in Harlem in the 1920s there was a lot of interest in black image, in ways to self-represent. For the first time, there were famous black style-makers. There were raccoon coats, well-dressed women and men, and the beginning of black middle and upper class. The images of those people are designed to express to everyone that they are respectable, that they are people, and rights should be extended to them.

What kind of reception has the book received? It’s in its second printing, and available on the Kindle. I was interviewed by an African fashion magazine, Arise, started by a Nigerian in London; I get random e-mails from people. A black gay man said he was so moved by it and was waiting his whole life for my book. I was like, really? A Free Man of Color, playing at the Lincoln Center Theater, is set in New Orleans around late 1800s. The main character is a black dandy. A Times of London reporter told me that George C. Wolfe, the director, began rehearsals for the play with my book in his hand.

Has your research changed how you dress? It’s put a lot of pressure on me! You don’t show up with this topic looking kind of shabby. I spent too much time in maternity clothing in the past two years, and now that’s all over, so I’m hoping to ramp it up again.

- June D. Bell