Walter Benjamin, in his treatise Charles Baudelaire, writes: “The dandy is a creation of the English” (p. 96). If dandyism, the style and the practice, is a uniquely English construct, it was the French who defined it in prose and poetry. The French author Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly, in his 1845 essay “Du dandysme et de George Brummell,” described it as a nationally characteristic mode of vanity combined with “the force of [an] English originality … as profound as her national spirit.” The dandy’s dandy, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, captured in the turn of his cuff and the knot of his cravat the studied irony and languor that defined his age. At the height of his popularity, from 1799 to 1810, Brummell, the son of a minor nobleman, held the entire British aristocracy in his sway. Attracted to no one particular feature of character (Brummell was neither great poet nor eminent thinker), his admirers were ostensibly captivated by his urbane sangfroid and impeccable dress, a clever and consummately constructed package that aimed to “astonish rather than to please” (Walden, p. 52). Essentially Brummell’s philosophical stance was to stand for nothing in particular, a posturing that aptly crystallized the uncertainty of a period that witnessed the decline of aristocracy and the early rise of democratic politics. Sartorially, he refined a mode of dress that adopted English country style in a renunciation of the affectations of Francophile fashion (ironically so, if one considers that these very fripperies have become so linked to the dandyism of contemporary imagination). As the dress historian James Laver, writing in 1968, points out, “whatever else it was, [dandyism] was the repudiation of fine feathers” (p. 10).
If Brummell was considered oppositional, it was in the privileging of this country clothing for wholly urban pursuits. Not an innovator (Thomas Coke of Norfolk was the first of the nobility to present himself in court in “sporting” attire over half a century previously), Brummell merely encapsulated and reflected back to society the sentiments of the times. In the early 1800s, the “sporting costume” of the English nobility reflected the increase in time spent supervising their estates; a top hat and tails in sober tones, linen cravats, breeches, and sturdy riding boots were a uniform of practicality and prudence. That Brummell appropriated this style for promenading through London’s arcades and holding court at one of the many gentlemen’s clubs of which he was a member served a dual purpose—suggesting the validity of entertainment as the “occupation” of the leisured classes while eradicating any immediate visible difference in status between himself and the “working” man.
In his recorded witticisms and his style, Brummell appeared to contemplate no distinction other than taste. His preoccupation with pose and appearance was derided as the last gasp of aristocratic decadence, but in many ways he anticipated the modern era—a world of social mobility in which taste was privileged above birth and wealth. Elevated as a style icon, he presaged the contemporary dominance of fashion and celebrity; clothing is as powerful a tool now as it was two hundred years ago for conveying new social and economic directions. Dedicated to perfection in dress (his lengthy toilette was legendary) and the immaculate presentation of his body, Brummell’s total control over his image finds its legacy in twenty-first-century masculine dress styles.
Dandyism in France
Dandyism was a potent cocktail that swiftly endeared itself to England’s European neighbor, France (and much later to Russia), privileging a love of beauty in material goods while appearing to nod to the revolutionary sentiment of the times. Most notable of France’s dandies was the young Alfred Guillaume Gabriel, count d’Orsay. Only a teenager when dandyism first crossed the seas to Paris, d’Orsay’s sartorial power had risen to Brummellian heights by 1845.
Unlike Brummell, however, d’Orsay’s pursuit of dandyism was a search for personal fulfillment rather than social power. Already powerful by token of birth, d’Or-say’s legacy was of dandyism as fashion plate, and he became known as the original “butterfly dandy.” There was also none of Brummell’s austerity; the French imagination had already mixed dandyism with English romanticism, as evidenced in d’Orsay’s more sensual, lavish, and luxurious approach to dress—silk replaced linen, curves replaced stricter lines, gold for silver. That much of France’s dandy traditions grew from literary interpretation is important in the context of the development of dandyism into a moral and artistic philosophy.
Defining dandyism is a complex task, and few writers have done so more successfully than Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his treatise on the dandy of 1828, Pelham; or, The Adventures of a Gentleman. Considered at the time to be a manual for the practice of dandyism, it amply demonstrates the growing link between the promotion of the self and promotion through the social ranks. Notable maxims include: “III: Always remember that you dress to fascinate others, not yourself,” and “XXIII: He who esteems trifles for themselves is a trifler—he who esteems them for the conclusions to be drawn from them, or the advantage to which they can be put, is a philosopher” (pp. 180-182).
That Bulwer-Lytton associates dandy practice with philosophy was concordant with later literary movements such as Barbey D’Aurevilly’s toward enshrining dandyism as intellectual pose rather than fashionable consumption. More immediately, however, Pelham inspired a Victorian backlash against dandyism that was to define the 1830s. At around the same time as d’Orsay reached the peak of his influence, back in England William Makepeace Thackeray was releasing the serial of his novel Vanity Fair, at the venerable age of thirty-six. Thackeray had contributed significantly to the Victorian approbation of dandyism in the 1830s, epitomized by the views expressed in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus [The tailor retailored] (1838). Thackeray’s regular columns and later novels, Vanity Fair and The History of Pendennis, were vivid representations of the moral and religiously driven belief that dandyism was a shallow and louche behavioral deficiency but they ironically were informed by his association with, and enjoyment of, the company of dandies such as d’Orsay.
It was the French, in particular D’Aurevilly, that were to define dandyism, through literature, as a positive practice and “robust moral philosophy” (Breward, p. 3). D’Aurevilly’s Du dandyisme et de Georges Brummell had a profound influence on all the texts, British and French, that followed it. Although D’Aurevilly never met Brummell, he formed an intimate friendship with Guillaume-Stanislas Trébutien, a scholar and native of Caen, the provincial French town to which Brummell escaped following his indebtedness and ultimate disgrace in the English court. Trébutien met and befriended William Jesse, a young officer who had in turn met Brummell at a social event in Caen and was impressed with Brummell’s “superlative taste.” Jesse’s accounts of Brummell, relayed to D’Aurevilly through Trébutien, were to form the basis of D’Aurevilly’s text. Jesse was to broaden D’Aurevilly’s already significant knowledge of dandyism, Regency literature, and the history of the Restoration, which formed the background to the practice by introducing him to more obscure texts that would never have reached the shores of France. D’Aurevilly was a little known author and poet prior to Dandyisme and found it hard to find a journal willing to publish his text. Consequently he and Trébutien decided to publish it themselves, further driven by the notion that a book on dandyism should be, anyway, an “eccentric, rare and precious” (Moers, p. 261) object.
D’Aurevilly, for the first time, celebrated dandyism and dedication to pose as a distinction. Dress, while important, was relegated to second place behind D’Aurevilly’s emphasis on the “intellectual quality” of Brummell’s position. As Ellen Moers points out in her seminal text The Dandy, “Barbey’s originality is to make dandyism available as an intellectual pose. The dandy is equated with the artist; society thus ought to pay him tribute. Brummell is indeed the archetype of all artists, for his art was one with his life” (p. 263).
The understanding of dandyism as an artistic presentation of the body related to the single-minded pursuit of bohemian individuality was developed thoroughly in the writings of Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire was not that interested in Brummell, but more in the modernity, as he saw it, of the ideas that he expressed. Baudelaire saw in Brummell’s dandyism the elevation of the trivial to a position of principle that perfectly mirrored, and offered an ideal framework for, his own beliefs. Baudelaire and D’Aurevilly maintained close contact through the 1850s and 1860s, exchanging letters, books and ideas about the practice. It was primarily through D’Aurevilly’s writings that Baudelaire’s bohemian dandy philosophy was made clear, although Baudelaire’s one essay on the subject Le peintre de la vie moderne later came to define Baudelaire’s approach to the subject. As Moers suggests, D’Aurevilly’s text on Brummell was so definitive as to liberate Baudelaire to “reach for the Dandy whole, as a symbol in the poetic sense” (p. 276).
Baudelaire’s view of dandyism as an “aristocracy superiority of [the] mind …[a] burning desire to create a personal form of originality” (Benjamin, p. 420), was taken up by the Aesthetic movement as a righteous crusade, a veneration of beauty and abhorrence of vulgarity that was defined by the Oxbridge scholar Walter Pater and, later, the decadent aestheticism of Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s earlier interpretation of dandyism took little from Brummell’s original aesthetic, influenced as his style was by the material tactility and medieval styling of the period (he later threw off the aesthetic-inspired costume in favor of a more somber style). What appealed to Wilde was the idea of beauty and perfection as expressed through the body and dress—the cultivation of the person as an art form that Baudelaire had crystallized in La vie moderne. Like Brummell (and Honoré Balzac, the Victorian-era dandy Benjamin Disraeli, and the Parisian aesthete Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac), Wilde promoted himself and his work through the presentation of his public body and quickly rose to the top of Britain’s social circle as a result. The era of decadence was the apogee of dandy performance in a world that was increasingly dominated by “advertising, publicity and showmanship,” in front of a far greater audience than Brummell could ever or would have wished to envisage. Wilde’s performed individuality and flamboyant costume were shackled to his desire for notoriety.
Like other notable dandies of the period, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, and James McNeill Whistler, Wilde also looked upon dandyism as a refuge from and bulwark against the burgeoning democracy of the times (although the dandyism of the fin de siècle was fueled by new money in a way that the Regency elitists would have decried). Although Wilde believed, hoped, that aestheticism would prevail, he was perhaps more accurate with his comment that London society was “made up of dowdies and dandies—The men are all dowdies and the women are all dandies.”
The Female Dandy
The emergence of the female dandy was to coincide with the downfall of Oscar Wilde. In Joe Lucchesi’s essay “The Dandy in Me,” he cites the American artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Romaine Brooks as notable female dandies of the period along with Brooks’s London-based circle of friends—in particular the aristocrat Lady Troubridge, the British artist “Peter” Gluck, and the writer Radclyffe Hall. By the 1900s, dandyism had reached New York, with O’Keeffe and her circle drawing on Baudelaire’s dandy philosophy “to make of oneself something original” (Fillin-Yeh, p. 131). Certainly Brooks’s adoption of the dandy code was conscious; she noted that “‘They [her admirers in her London circle] like the dandy in me and are in no way interested in my inner self or value'” (Fillin-Yeh, p. 153).
Brooks’s dandyism was bound up in her lesbian sexuality. The sartorial lexicon of dandy practice offered these women a model for negotiating a social position for themselves that shared signifiers with the dress of the modern woman. Joe Lucchesi writes that “lesbians adopted the signifying dress of the modern woman as a way of expressing their sexuality yet also linking it to a similar but less dangerous figure” (Fillin-Yeh, p. 173).
As Virginia Woolf was to note in A Room of One’s Own (1929), the woman’s position within the sphere of cultural production was still difficult to carve out in what was a male-dominated community. It seems to be no coincidence that Woolfs shape-shifting Orlando ultimately takes on masculine form in the character’s twentieth-century incarnation. Baudelaire had suggested that lesbians were the “heroines of modernism . . . an erotic ideal . . . who bespeaks hardness and mannishness” (Benjamin, p. 90), and for Brooks and her circle, there was a direct link between the invisibility of the female artist and the invisibility of female homosexuality. The figure of the dandy, certainly following Wilde, united concerns of the self as art form, the feminized homosexual, and the position of the individual within the urban environment.
Inspired by her compatriot and friend James McNeill Whistler, Brooks’s dress shared many similarities with his (and de Montesquiou-Fezensac’s) gentlemanly elegance and refined creativity. Although the fashions of Brooks’s portraits were already thirty years out of date for men, they emerged in parallel with the notion of the modern, heterosexual woman and the modernity of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Masculine dress, within the fashion arena, served to emphasize the sexualized and idealized female physique in the same way that it had always done for the male body. In addition, it offered a means for women like Chanel, who went from country girl to courtesan to milliner to designer to affect a revolution in their social status and representation. Drawing inspiration from masculine, aristocratic sporting clothing, Chanel understood as deftly as Brummell its practical and social value. As Rhonda K. Garelick writes, “By casting off the complicated frill of women’s clothing and replacing them with solid colours, simple stripes and straight lines, Chanel added great visual ‘speed’ to the female form, while granting an increased actual speed to women who could move about more easily than before” (Fillin-Yeh, p. 41).
The figure of the dandy provides an abundance of material for the subversive and frequently ironic interventions that have come to be associated with British cultural production. Throughout the twentieth century, periods of acute social upheaval have witnessed parallel and intense bursts of dandy behavior. Masculine consumption, and the relationship of material goods to class and status, have played an important role for social and cultural arrivistes from Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton in the 1920s and 1930s to the publisher Tyler Brûlé and the designer Ozwald Boateng in the 1990s. “And,” as writer George Walden suggests, “English sensitivities are acutely alive to anything to do with social nuance, whether accent, posture, conduct or clothes” (Walden, p. 29).
The desires of Regency dandyism were amply catered for by a plethora of specialist boutiques that had grown up in and around the streets of London’s Mayfair and Piccadilly. The tailors; breeches, boot, and glove makers; milliners; and perfumiers that vied to tend to the immaculate bodies of their dandy customers were sandwiched between numerous specialists catering to the refined tastes of their client’s stomach, interior décor, and cultural entertainment and welfare. The consumerism of the Regency dandy makes him a particularly analogous figure to the contemporary British dandies of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Moving beyond the golden triangle to Carnaby Street in the 1960s, and latterly Islington, Spitalfields, and Hoxton Square, the sites of dandy consumption are, for the most part, reassuringly familiar—small, select boutiques, elite tailors, exquisite restaurants and bars, exclusive members clubs, artisan publishers, and celebrity delicatessens still dominate the dandy landscape.
In the twenty-first century, the steady spread of globalization, of branded culture, is once again providing fertile ground for the emergence of the contemporary dandy. The figure of the dandy presents a sartorial and behavioral precedent that allows for the celebration of beauty in material culture while cultivating an aura of superiority to it, and the early twenty-first century has seen a resurgence of interest in the traditional purveyors of material status. London’s Savile Row is increasingly populated by filmmakers, recording artists, visual artists, and designers, joining the existing ranks of the traditional British gentleman who is these tailors’ staple client. At the same time, brands such as Burberry, Aquascutum, and Pringle, who have traded for decades on their status as suppliers of quality and standing, have seen their customer profile alter to include an international audience in search of distinction as well as a more specific sartorial subculture closer to home—the Terrace Casual.
The early 1980s Casual project was vehemently patriotic. Forays into Europe in the early 1980s showed Britain’s football fans in stark contrast to their Italian and French counterparts whose immaculate dress prompted a revolution in British working-class style that saw the football fan become the principle consumer of mostly European luxury sporting brands. Today’s Terrace Casual springs from similar terrain. What separates him from his forebears is that the garments he favors are principally British, the upper-class sporting pursuits which with they are associated redolent of the masculine camaraderie and corporeal engagement of club life favored by Brum-mell and his circle. As with Brummell, the Terrace Casual style is engaged in the positioning of traditional upper-class “country” style in the urban environment, co-opting it for the pursuit of leisure rather than the management of rural estates. While adopting the trappings of aristocracy disrupts perceived social status, it acts as a celebration rather than rejection of all the mores and moralities that these garments imply.
Oscar Wilde once said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” and Hoxton style is the ultimate expression of the “music/fashion/art” triumvirate that characterizes British street style in the twenty-first century. As Christopher Breward writes, “D’Aurevilly’s dandy incorporated a spirit of aggressively bohemian individualism that first inspired Charles Baudelaire and then Joris-Karl Huysmans in their poetic celebrations of a sublime artificiality It is possible to see this trajectory leading forward through the decadent work of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde to inform twentieth century notions of existential ‘cool'” (Breward 2003 p. 3). While Wilde’s bohemian decadence runs like a seam through the Bloomsbury set; the glam-rock outrage and rebelliousness of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie; the performativity of Leigh Bowery and Boy George; and the embodiment of life as art in Quentin Crisp, it is the Hoxton Dandy, as epitomized by the singer Jarvis Cocker, who presents an equally subversive contemporary figure. Originality is as crucial for the Hoxton Dandy as it was for Brummell and Hoxton Square, once a bleak, principally industrial quarter of East London, now at the heart of a trajectory of British bohemianism that began in Soho in Brummell’s time. Hoxton has quickly become a hub of new media/graphic/furniture/ fashion design style that embraces its gritty urban history of manufacturing. Artisan clothing has often drawn upon dress types more usually associated with the workingman in order to emphasize the masculinity of artistic pursuit, the physical labor involved in its production. This is no less true of the Hoxton style, which is rooted in a flamboyant urban camouflage—a mix of military iconography, “peasant” staples, and industrial work wear, made from high-performance fabrics whose functionality always far outweighs their purpose.
In his time, the modernity of Brummell’s monochromatic style marked him out in opposition to more decadent European fashion and made him a hero to writers such as Baudelaire. Modernism in the twentieth century continued to struggle to establish itself as a positive choice in British design culture, yet the periods of flirtation with clean lines and somber formality were intense and passionate, a momentary reprieve from the ludic sensibilities British designers more commonly entertained. The early British Modernists of the 1950s sought to emulate the socially mobile elements of American society. Stylistically, they drew inspiration from the sleek, sharp, and minimal suit favored by the avant-garde musicians of the East Coast jazz movement. Philosophically, early mods saw themselves as “citizens of the world” (Polhemus 1994 p. 51), a world in which it only mattered where you were going, not from where you came. In 2003 clean lines and muted colors once more afforded relief from the riot and parody of postmodernism that had dominated British fashion since the emergence of Vivienne Westwood and, latterly, John Galliano. The Neo-Modernist style draws, as it did in Brummell’s day, on established sartorial traditions but subverts them through materials (denim for suits, shirting fabrics for linings), form (tighter, sharper, and leaner than the norm) and, ultimately, function.
Brummell was, in fact, almost puritanical in his approach to style. Max Beerbohm wrote in the mid-twentieth century of “‘the utter simplicity of [Brummell’s] attire’ and ‘his fine scorn for accessories,’ ” which has led contemporary commentators such as Walden to note that “Brummell’s idea of sartorial elegance, never showy, became increasingly conservative and restrained” (Walden, p. 28). Aesthetically, British gentlemanly style is the closest to Brummellian dandyism. As in previous centuries, the gentleman is defined by class and by his relationship to property (rural and urban). This easy, natural association reflects the apparent effortlessness of dress, manners, and social standing. Gentlemanly dress is loaded with expressive, but never ostentatious, clues; as Brummell suggested, “If [the common man] should turn . . . to look at you, you are not too well dressed; but neither too stiff, too tight or too fashionable.” Brummell’s refusal of finery for a more practical costume can be seen in the contemporary confinement of his own style of cravat, frock coat, and highly polished boots to special-occasion wear. In this, the early twenty-first-century gentlemanly uniform of gray or navy suit, black lace-up shoe, white shirt, and modestly colorful tie more than nods to Brummell’s stylistic approach.
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