So, here’s the thing: A black man in a dress is a political statement. Blame it on “masculinity too fragile,” blame it on “definitions of black masculinity are too narrow,” blame it on your Paw Paw, but it just is. So when Young Thug, or Jeffery as we’re expected to call him for a bit, dropped his cover art for the No, My Name is JEFFERY mixtape last night, whether he admits it or not, he knew it was going to kick up quite a bit of conversation.
Let’s be clear: Young Thug wearing dresses is nothing new. We all remember that Gucci dress he wore in Dazed Magazine and the ruckus that set off. Most recently, he was wearing a dress in his Calvin Klein ad campaign. And of course, he isn’t the only black male musician to step outside of what is thought to be traditionally masculine. In relation to the history of Atlanta-based acts, he follows Andre 3000, CeeLo Green, and more. Thinking outside of that city, Prince is a clear trailblazer. So, the first, he was not. But that doesn’t make it any less of a statement.
In the section of the world we affectionately, and sometimes derisively, call “Black Twitter,” opinions were split. Some viewed Thug’s act as the latest in the stream of ways society has sought to embarrass, bring down, or “sissify” black men. Others view it as groundbreaking and boundary pushing, and a part in the larger “carefree black boy” movement that sees an expansion of ideas about and portrayals of black masculinity. Still others take it as an appropriation of queer culture and another attempt from cis heterosexual men to co-opt components of a marginalized community. The opinions were strong, and with good reason; it’s a layered issue.
As for Thugger himself, reports indicate that the choice was purely driven by aesthetics. As the photographer who shot the album cover, Garfield Larmond, revealed to The Fader, this photo actually came as a re-do of the rapper’s original artwork. While Thug and Garfield were conceptualizing the art, the Atlanta-native came across the dress by designer Alessandro Trincone. Trincone, who designs without regard for gender lines, had submitted it as part of VFILES’ crowdsourced fashion competition; alongside Naomi Campbell, Thug is a VFILES mentor this season. “We were just looking through the photos at the end of the shoot, and [Thug] said, ‘What’s that? I need it,’” Garfield told The Fader. “We didn’t expect VFILES to say they could send the piece to us, but they were like, ‘We can get the whole outfit to you in Atlanta.’”
That revelation brings into question whether Thugger was cross-dressing at all. Is a man wearing clothes made for men as much as they’re made for women actually cross-dressing? (For the record, Trincone said he was inspired by Japanese kimonos, though in the context of Thugger, the vibe also recalls the Antebellum South.) Can only queer men wear pieces by the likes of Trincone and other labels who shirk gender boundaries, like Duckie Brown? What about Grace Wales Bonner, who recently won the LVMH Prize and uses her work to explore masculinity and race? Are her designs also only to be worn by queer people? Queerness is complex, and for many people, an identity that can't be taken on or off as easily as a dress.
Increasingly, though, black men are widening the ideas of what black masculinity is. One of the most notable names to do so lately has been Jaden Smith, who can be found wearing just about anything, including skirts. For Smith, the choice to wear clothing traditionally designed for women has a specific purpose. “I’m going to take most of the blows for my fellow MSFTS,” the 17-year-old told NYLON. “So, you know, in five years when a kid goes to school wearing a skirt, he won’t get beat up, and kids won’t get mad at him. It just doesn’t matter. I’m taking the brunt of it, so that later on, my kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal that weren’t expected before my time.” It’s quite a bold statement.
With any newness, there is going to be friction. With such a narrow definition of what currently constitutes black masculinity, one might be hard pressed to find ways of stepping into new territory without stepping on toes. Although there’s momentary discomfort, is there anything actually wrong with all men, not just within the queer community, fighting for the right to feel comfortable expressing themselves in whichever way they choose?
Thug hasn't called himself queer. All he's done is wear an outfit he obviously likes. If it's that simple for him, can't it be just as easy for the rest of us?