Birth of the Cool: 20 Black Style Pioneers
As we reported over on The GQ Eye, the sharp-dressed young gentlemen behind the blog Street Etiquette —Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs—recently launched a D.I.Y. photo project to commemorate Black History Month and the style legacy of men like Miles Davis and Sammy Davis Jr. We’re fans of the feature, and of the blog’s overarching appetite for figuring out what makes classic American style tick, and asked Joshua and Travis to collaborate with us on an expanded, more in-depth list. Here, then, a slideshow of the in-many-cases-unsung style heroes whose sartorial impact and influence reach way beyond the year’s shortest month—in the words of the Street Etiquette guys themselves.
Alto saxophonist, Duke Ellington OrchestraLeft: circa 1945
“You can tell he was in Duke Ellington’s band—meaning that he was an extremely well-dressed gentleman. But at the same time, Johnny was something of a rogue, and much more of a dandy than Duke himself. Check out the hat, and the bold, super-luxe suit… I think you could say Johnny was a counterpoint to Duke’s more subdued brand of elegance.” Dick Gregory
Stand-up comedian; civil rights activistLeft: circa 1964
“He was a brilliant comedian, but I think of him more as an icon of 1950s and ’60s American style—the width of his tie and lapels and the cut of his suit jacket are all very much of that era… which also means they’re very now.
And today, as an older gentleman, he’s a pro at pattern mixing.” Richard Roundtree
Actor (best known for the Shaft
movie series)Left: circa 1970
“It’s the all-leather look—leather jacket, leather pants, leather driving gloves—and it says, I’m stylish, and don’t mess with me.
That Black Panther vibe, a little bit. Some people take issue with blaxploitation stereotypes, but it was what it was—and many were proud to have an African-American playing an action hero who kicked butt and at the same time looked great.” Marvin Gaye
Singer and songwriterLeft: circa 1980
“Everyone’s wearing denim shirts these days, and I like to think Marvin has something to do with that. This is a true workwear look he’s pulling off here—vintage Americana, the stuff everyone’s wild for now. He made denim-on-denim cool for us… and I love the way he contrasts it with the red knit hat.” Harry Belafonte
Singer, actor, civil rights activistLeft: 1969, London Heathrow Airport
“He was a calypso singer, and his style really incorporated the Caribbean vibe. He’d do things like leave two or three buttons undone on his dress shirts—laid-back, warm-weather stuff. Here he is in London, wearing a turtleneck under a suede overcoat, with houndstooth pants—amazing. He always put his own unique spin on everything.” Jean-Michel Basquiat
ArtistLeft: 1986, New York
“A plaid shirt with a striped coat; that may contradict some people’s ideas of what ‘correct’ pattern mixing is, but he’s pulling it off. He expressed himself in his personal style as strongly as he did in his paintings. And as a graffiti artist, he was influenced by the streets: not too tailored, but always showing people that he knew how to dress.” Sidney Poitier
Actor, director, writerLeft: circa 1970
“Seeing A Raisin in the Sun
, with Sidney as Walter Lee Younger, was a pivotal style moment for us—he was just such a sharp individual. The way he’d tuck his polo shirts into his trousers…sharp. His style was about simplicity, and keeping things clean-cut. And he could pull off an amazing slim suit. I think he was the first black actor who made people think, Wow, this guy is no joke.
" Vivien Thomas
SurgeonLeft: circa 1970
“We know about him because Mos Def played him in a TV movie we saw [Something the Lord Made
, 2004]. There aren’t many photographs of him out there, unfortunately. He was a physician, so there was a conservative thing going on with his look. But he still brought a fantastic amount of style to his profession—the bold glasses, and the short, shaped mustache. Very distinguished looking, with the pipe. You can tell the man knew how to age with dignity.” Teddy Pendergrass
Singer, songwriterLeft: circa 1970s
“One of the best soul singers ever, and a loud, passion-driven character. His music screams
at you; it’s like, wow, this guy was really passionate
about turning down the lights and spending time with his girl! His style was really related to that whole psychedelic, ’70s vibe, but he’d also go sharp and classic: check out the wide-lapeled, cream-colored suit, the tassel loafers with wingtip details, the way he crosses his legs. And his beard and hair sort of give the whole look a jolt of attitude.” Huey P. Newton
Co-founder and leader of the Black Panther PartyLeft: July 1967
“Huey was a rebel in his own right. He and the Black Panthers did all-black-everything way before Jay-Z. They made a hard-hitting style statement without trying too hard, through subversive little twists on the classics: like this white button-down-collar shirt peeking out from under a high-cut black leather blazer.” Bill T. Jones
Choreographer, dancer, directorLeft: October 2009, lecturing at Skidmore College
“The silhouettes of Jones’s looks really complement what he does as a dancer: the clothes are looser, more relaxed, all about movement.
This photo’s a reminder that a cool hat can really add something to your style. And the all-black look, with the black eyeglass frames… You know he’s an artist, just by looking at him.”Richard Pryor
Stand-up comedian, actor, writerLeft: February 27, 1966, on The Ed Sullivan Show
“He mastered the art of storytelling through comedy; and the guy could make anyone
laugh. But what he’s wearing here… This is serious stuff! He could’ve walked off a runway, in 2010. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d wear right now. Interesting how he’s wearing the sharply tailored suit with monkstrap shoes, rather than with wingtips or loafers… He’s speaking his own language here.” Matthew Henson
Arctic explorerLeft: date unknown
“Definitely not a lot of pictures out there of this guy, either, but this shot really blows us away. He’s an Arctic explorer, obviously, but he’s also got a pinky ring on. In other words, he’s incorporating his personal style into his occupation. This brings to mind hip-hop circa 2000, with guys wearing a lot of mink; but this is the real deal. No chains, no platinum—this was just keeping warm.” Ernie Barnes
Artist; professional football player (AFL: New York Titans, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos)Left: in his L.A. studio, 1996
“Ernie Barnes’s best-known painting was Sugar Shack,
which Marvin Gaye put on an album cover [I Want You
, 1976]; the rap group Camp Lo, from the Bronx, referenced it on a cover, too [Uptown Saturday Night,
1997]. The colors in his paintings—they just pop out at you, and speak life.
He’s a reminder that style isn’t always just about how you dress. You get the feeling that he channels so much of his into the work itself.” Otis Redding
SingerLeft: January 21, 1967, backstage at Hunter College, New York, NY
“You see photos of Otis, and he was just always so stylish; even if you don’t know who he is, you see a photo of him and think, there had to be something to this guy.
I love the silhouette here. A double-breasted shawl blazer with a turtleneck underneath, and that overcoat. It looks like he just put on what he had and went with it. And a turtleneck—it’s a piece you either love or hate. Our next blog post is going to be about turtlenecks.” Sammy Davis Jr.
Singer, dancer, TV and movie starLeft: May 3, 1966
“A sharp-dressed Rat Pack member, and an all-around stand-up guy. The first African-American to grace GQ
's cover. He wore the kind of stuff we'd wear today: slim ties, tailored suit jackets, tapered pants. I love how unguarded and irreverent he is here, tap dancing on his hotel-room table, in a high-cropped one-button gray flannel suit and Beatle boots. He was never afraid to step outside of the box and do things his own way.” Gordon Parks
Photographer, director, journalistLeft: February 6, 1968
“He was his own Renaissance man: a photographer, film director, journalist. He wore the tools of his trade—like his camera, here—effortlessly, like they were wardrobe accessories. And he’s a testament to the power of the trench coat: put one on over a shirt and tie and you can look elegant and be totally comfortable at the same time. He always brought personality to being on the job.” Langston Hughes
Poet, writer, journalistLeft: circa 1950s
“A pivotal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, which is a major inspiration to us. I know A Dream Deferred
from front to back. He always looked completely at ease in what he was wearing, whether it was a sharply tailored suit or the very cool combo here. He’s taking a workwear staple—a flannel shirt—and making it look really refined and elegant by tucking it in to a dressier pair of plaid pants. The poet at rest.”Duke Ellington
Composer, pianistLeft: circa 1925
“A lifetime of splendor. Duke always stuck to what he knew: a strong, confident look with lots of double-breasted, wide-lapeled suits and overcoats. The best-dressed jazz musician of all time, in my opinion. This is timeless style—you could wear anything Duke wore right now and look amazing.” Miles Davis
Trumpeter, composerLeft: April 20, 1953, New York
“He exudes that confidence and swagger that was characteristic of many of his peers on the scene, but puts his own twist on everything that was going on at the time. He’s really distinct from everyone on our list, and is the first man who came to mind when we started putting it together. We like that he wasn’t always suited up; he’d go casual, playing with scarves, with polo shirts, with khakis. And he evolved over time in a way you just couldn’t predict.”