Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was perhaps the greatest French poet of the nineteenth century. He is most famous for a volume of poetry, Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of evil), published in 1857, which was prosecuted for blasphemy as well as obscenity. Baudelaire was also an important art critic and translator. He appears in an encyclopedia of fashion because he proved to be an influential theorist of fashion and dandyism.
In his youth, Baudelaire devoted considerable time and money to his appearance. At a time when the masculine wardrobe was becoming ever more sober, he adopted an austere form of dandyism that was neither foppish nor bohemian. Whereas many of his contemporaries deplored the trend toward dark, severe clothing for men, he embraced and even exaggerated the style by wearing all-black clothing. But dandyism involved more than clothing for Baudelaire; he would certainly not have agreed with Thomas Carlyle’s definition of the dandy as “a clothes-wearing man.” Although Baudelaire’s poetry does not touch on dandyism per se, he explored the topic both in his intimate journals, under such headings as “The eternal superiority of the Dandy. What is the Dandy?”, and in two of his most famous essays, “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” a section of his Salon of 1846, and The Painter of Modern Life (1863).
The modernity of dandyism is central to Baudelaire’s analysis. Dandyism, he wrote, “is a modern thing, resulting from causes entirely new.” It appears “when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is just beginning to fall.” Like many artists during the nineteenth century, Baudelaire was ambivalent about the rise of democracy and capitalism. He described contemporary middle-class masculine attire as “a uniform livery of affliction [that] bears witness to equality.” It was, he suggested, “a symbol of perpetual mourning.” On the other hand, Baudelaire insisted that one should be of one’s own time. “But all the same, has not this much-abused garb its own beauty?” The modern man’s frock coat had both a “political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality,” and also a “poetic beauty.”
In place of the equality which modern men’s uniform attire seemed to proclaim, Baudelaire suggested that dandyism announced a new type of intellectual elitism. “In the disorder of these times, certain men . . . may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy . . . based . . . on the divine gifts which work and money are unable to bestow. Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence.” Baudelaire’s modern dandy eschewed not only the foppish paraphernalia of prerevolutionary aristocratic dress, but also denied the bourgeois capitalist dominance of wealth. The Baudelairean dandy was not just a wealthy man who wore fashionable and expensive dark suits.
“Dandyism does not . . . consist, as many thoughtless people seem to believe, in an immoderate taste for . . . material elegance,” declared Baudelaire. “For the perfect dandy these things are no more than symbols of his aristocratic superiority of mind. Furthermore, to his eyes, which are in love with distinction above all things, the perfection of his toilet will consist in absolute simplicity.” Part of Baudelaire’s minimalist aesthetic involved the elimination of color in favor of black, a noncolor that remains strongly associated with both authority and rebellion, as witnessed by the following lines from Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs:
MR. PINK: Why can’t we pick out our own color?
JOE: I tried that once. It don’t work. You get four guys fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black.
If modern men’s clothing—and still more so the clothing of the dandy—was characterized by simplicity, the same could not be said of nineteenth-century women’s fashion, which was highly complicated and decorative. It was only in the twentieth century that such women as Coco Chanel created a radically simplified style of female fashion epitomized by the little black dress. Indeed, it could be said that Chanel was one of the first female dandies. Yet Baudelaire’s attitudes toward women are problematic for modern feminists. “Woman is the opposite of the dandy,” declared Baudelaire, because she is “natural.” Only to the extent that she creates an artificial persona through dress and cosmetics is she admirable, and, even then, Baudelaire describes her as “a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling.”
Putting aside his ambivalence towards women, Baudelaire analyzed fashion in ways that illuminate both modern life and modern art. In particular, his essay The Painter of Modern Life was one of the first and most penetrating analyses of the relationship between la mode (fashion) and la modernité (modernity). For Baudelaire, fashion was the key to modernity, and one simply could not paint modern individuals if one did not understand their dress. Baudelaire argued that it was simply “laziness” that led so many artists to “dress all their subjects in the garments of the past.” “The draperies of Rubens or Veronese will in no way teach you how to depict . . . fabric of modern manufacture,” he wrote. “Furthermore, the cut of skirt and bodice is by no means similar. . . . Finally, the gesture and bearing of the woman of today gives her dress a life and a special character which are not those of the woman of the past.”
According to Baudelaire, there were two aspects to beauty—the eternal and the ephemeral. The fact that fashion was so transitory, constantly changing into something new, made it the hallmark of modernity. The modern artist, whether painter or poet, had to be able “to distill the eternal from the transitory.” As Baudelaire wrote, “What poet would dare, in depicting the pleasure caused by the appearance of a great beauty, separate the woman from her dress?”
As a theorist of fashion, Baudelaire moved far beyond such other dandies and writers of his era as George (“Beau”) Brummell, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Théophile Gautier. He inspired such modernist poets as Stéphane Mallarmé and such philosophers as Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to imagine the modern study of fashion without taking account of Baudelaire’s contribution.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1964.
Lehmann, Ulrich. Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
Moers, Ellen. The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960.
Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Berg, 1999.