Oakland ‘Black Dandy’ Michael Wayne Turner III Wears His Solo Show Costumes Every Day
When audiences walk into “Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter,” the sets they see aren’t just sets. Tailor-made three-piece suits hanging from racks, lots of scarves, ties and pocket squares, hats posed elegantly, shoes that change from aquamarine to navy blue are all the wardrobe daily life of writer and performer Michael Wayne Turner. III.
Yes, the 30-year-old theater artist, poet and stylist from Oakland really does dress that way all the time, seven days a week. (Shoes? “The basics of attire,” he says .) He only recently bought a pair of jeans, but even the ones he wears with a blazer – and only on extremely casual days.
Turner identifies as a dandy, a term many might use derogatorily or mistakenly assume is the exclusive domain of white people. But for him, as he explores in his one-man show – a compilation of poems, monologues and stories performed at the Oakland Theater Project from Friday, May 13 to May 22 – black dandyism is an attitude, an identity and a way of being free.
Turner first became interested in fashion as a child while dressing up for his church in Houston, where looking your best was a big part of the culture.
“Just wearing the same old white shirt, black pants, black tie would kill me, suffocate me,” he recalls during a break during a recent rehearsal. His family went to church almost every day of the week. “Dressing up for church was my first rebellion and my access to joy, like, ‘If I have to do this, I’m going to do it my way.’ ”
He started playing with color, maybe a red or purple tie with a yellow shirt, and interspersing patterns such as paisley and herringbone, paying attention to the tooling of the fabric to create different combinations of textures. . At the age of 10, her mother realized that she could no longer buy her clothes on her own; its taste was already too particular.
Turner embraced dandyism more fully after college, during a multi-year run on Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “Word Becomes Flesh” show – a time when he was consciously searching for an identity. Fit Dandyism.
“I liked that it was whimsical, playful and yet serious, intellectual, cultured, sophisticated,” he said. “It allowed me to explore my manhood in a way that wasn’t encouraged in other circles or with other identities. When you look like a cross between silly and serious, when you look like a cross between ugly and beautiful, at least in the way you mix colors, people allow you to be whatever you want to be.
“Young black men are encouraged to dress in the garb of the criminal, the drug dealer, the gangbanger, the poor athlete aspiring to be rich and famous,” he added. “People approach these characters with a certain level of assumption.”
Turner wanted to explode this assumption or circumvent it altogether. He wants the public – both passers-by who notice his outfits and viewers of the solo exhibition – to wonder about the spirit behind the outfit.
It was this spirit that inspired Michael Socrates Moran, co-artistic director of the Oakland Theater Project, to put on the show. He describes Turner as “a versatile theatrical artist”, with Turner’s writing, acting, musicality and fashion – and Moran does not use the word “artist” lightly.
“It’s like a struggles with how to integrate the world through your medium, and his medium is multifaceted,” Moran said. The way Turner dresses, Moran added, “elevates a space.”
While for many the quintessential dandy is a dead white – Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward – black dandyism has a long and complicated history and a fruitful present. In “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity,” researcher Monica L. Miller dates the phenomenon of the slave trade.
“As the Atlantic began to connect blacks and whites in unprecedented ways, blacks expressed their own sense of style in relation to what they perceived to operate in the European societies with which they traded or in which they lived. “, she writes.
Quoting “Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style” by Shantrelle P. LewisTurner sees black dandyism as a double rebellion: against “who society has sold you to be and who your own race and community expects you to be”.
His own look reinvents the style of black American men of the early 1900s. He is so inspired by the Harlem Renaissance that he uses his wardrobe as a tribute to the parents of that generation.
“If Langston (Hughes) was this dope, who is his mother? What did his pops sound like? ” he said.
Turner settled in Oakland after the “Word Becomes Flesh” tour, honing his craft as a theater artist with Youth Speaks, the Living Word Project, Campo Santo, and the African-American Shakespeare Company and building his wardrobe. (He stopped counting after accumulating 45 suits. At one point, he had 32 hats.)
He worked as a costume salesman, developing a discernment for different types of wools, eventually branching out into style advertisements and photo shoots. Today, he’s the creative director of Oakland custom shoe brand Koffi Noir, working side-by-side as a personal shopper for individual “preferred clients.”
Turner has a few style rules: Limit an outfit to three colors. Black goes with everything. Waist adjustment. “Keep your hygiene on point.” Once you adhere to these tenets, “that pin or that choice of scarf or the way you wear your hair, as continuators of your story and personality, can be a game-changer in your personal style.”
When he tries on an outfit that follows all of these guidelines, “I feel like a superhero,” he said. Turner estimates that he regularly receives 10 to 12 compliments a day. Others are put off by his style, perhaps thinking he’s a rich jerk or a sellout. This is when the costume as a superhero costume doubles as armor.
“I understand that you may not have been encouraged to live the way you really want to live,” he told those watching him from the sidelines. “You might not be encouraged to dress the way you really want to dress. So it’s kind of shocking to see someone so opposite to what you might be going through. Sometimes it’s insulting to your choices. Sometimes it’s insulting to your bravery.
The dandy’s state of mind gives way to those who do not conceive of the dandy. “The attitude of the dandy is this complete acceptance and recognition of a complex spirit expressed in clothing.”
“Hat Matter: Thoughts from a Black Mad Hatter”: Written and performed by Michael Wayne Turner III. From Friday May 13 to May 22. $25 to $75. Lin Art & Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. 510-646-1126. https://oaklandtheaterproject.org