What does the dandy do when he wakes up early in the afternoon? Does he moon over beauty and contemplate the eternal verities? Does he jot down a few bons mots? Does he man the barricades to protest our vulgar, bourgeois and consumerist society? Does he pine for the days when men wore knee breeches and silk stockings?
No, the true dandy does none of these things.
The dandy goes to his bath and scrubs himself clean, shaves, brushes his teeth, and arranges any stray hairs. Then he adorns himself, examining each detail in his mirror – the dimple in his tie, the shine on his shoes, the puff of his pocket square, the precision of his trouser crease, the bloom of his boutonniere, the harmony and balance of all the components of his ensemble – until he gets it just right. When he finally departs his home, he is a habitué not of the salon, opera, theatre, museum, concert hall, casino, restaurant or club to which he may or may not arrive, but of his tailor and haberdasher.
For the dandy is a man with visible good taste. Dressing well is his hallmark. Strip a dandy of his clothes and what do you have?
The dandy’s two-hundred-year history can be summarized in just two albeit Proustian sentences: The definitive study of the dandy as a social and literary phenomenon, Ellen Moers’ “The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm,” shows how the original, robust, snuff-snorting Regency dandy eschewed the jewel buttons, lace ruffles, silk stockings, gold shoe buckles, perfume and other extravagances of the aristocratic fop, and also the coarse slovenliness, dirt and disarray affected by republican sympathizers, and instead emphasized superb fit, perfection of cut, harmony of color, personal cleanliness and, most famously, the well-tied starched linen cravat, and came to dominate his society through his insolence, then crossed the Channel to France and returned accessorized and sissified in his attire, and became, while remaining a social lion, the more flamboyant “butterfly dandy” who eventually drank too much absinthe, smoked too much hash, raged against the bourgeois, dressed in black, and thus became the decadent dandy, who spiced his personality with wit and aestheticism, was often gay, consciously adopted aesthetic garb, entertained the mass public and thereby became the fin-de-siecle dandy, who floundered in the shallows of his own shallowness and became the extinct dandy when Beerbohm, Brummell’s true heir and most insightful interpreter, retired prematurely to Rapallo. The dandy, others might add, rose again from the dead after the carnage of the Great War and became the Bright Young Thing of the ’20s and the charming personages depicted in “Brideshead Revisited,” transfigured into the Duke of Windsor and Fred Astaire, who fashioned and embodied the guiding principle of men’s attire, nonchalant elegance, that has endured for the past eighty years, and so on to Messrs. 3000 and Bentley and the consummate, though invisible, dandies of Dandyism.net.
But throughout the dandy’s many mutations, one constant has persisted: a dandy distinguishes himself by the way he dresses. Everything else about the dandy has been more or less mutable.
Consider, for example, the dandy as a social phenomenon. His position in, and relationship to, society has changed. The Regency dandy was a leader of society. Likewise, the social butterfly dandy was a lion of the bon ton. The decadent dandy, however, placed himself outside, rather than at the apex of, society; he was a critic of a society that had become bland and conformist. The fin-de-siecle dandy also was a critic, this time of Victorian values.
Indeed, the dandy’s social significance was sometimes contradictory. Take again the Regency dandy. For the common-born Regency dandy such as Brummell, dandyism was a way to join the aristocracy, often while mocking its foibles. For the aristocratic Regency dandy, such as Wellington, it was a way to justify one’s superior position and affirm the legitimacy of the aristocracy when it was under attack.
Either way, the Regency dandy had to assert himself in an exclusive, elitist, stratified society. Today’s society is, in contrast, is mass, consumerist and democratic. We build, as Tom Wolfe has noted, Las Vegas, not Versailles. Therefore, aping the manners of 19th-century dandies would be as inappropriate for a contemporary dandy as dressing up in 19th-century costume.Here Beerbohm’s observation is spot on: “The dandy is the ‘child of his age,’ and his best work must be produced in accord with the age’s natural influence. The true dandy must always love contemporary costume.”
Moreover, the “philosophy” of the dandy attributed to him by most scholars is really no way to go through life. Irony is a literary device, not a way of life, and detachment is a waste of a life. In Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” the narrator rhetorically asks of the detached Charles Swann, “For what other lifetime was he reserving the moment when he would at last say seriously what he thought of things, formulate opinions that he did not have to put between quotation marks, and no longer indulge with punctilious politeness in occupations [that] he declared at the time to be ridiculous?”
Indeed, for what other lifetime? These attitudes are simply not worth adopting and there is no need to do so in order to be a dandy. Again, as Beerbohm cautioned, “[T]here is no reason why dandyism should be confused, as it has been by nearly all writers, with mere social life. Its contact with social life is, indeed, but one of the accidents of an art.” That art is wearing clothes artfully and well.
There are those who cannot accept this conclusion. They fear that emphasis on the dandy’s outward appearance reduces him to some vulgar swank. They are not content with the dandy’s own choice of ensemble. They must robe him with a regal mantle. His outward elegance reflects some inner nobility, they say. Romantic twaddle, I say.
I blame, in the words of Sir Percy Blakney, those demmed Frenchies. Instead of being dandies they analyzed dandyism. Barbey, I believe, was a real dandy. Baudelaire, with his black wardrobe, I am not so sure of. Balzac wrote perceptively and wittily about the dandy’s life in his fiction and penned “La Traité de la Vie Elégante,” an ostensibly anti-dandy tract full of valid sartorial epigrams. Yet Balzac was, by all accounts, oily, fat and dirty, and therefore no dandy. The French thereby started the process of disassociating the dandy from his clothes, thus obscuring his essence. Not only that, these hierophants of dandyism provided grist for academic mills to belch wearisome dissertations in comparative literature and gender studies in pursuit of advanced degrees and often in furtherance of certain social and political agendas.
To the feminist, for example, the dandy is revered not for his elegance, but as a subverter of sexual stereotypes and their assumed concomitant repression. The dandy has thus devolved from a singular man with visible good taste to an amorphous, bloodless abstraction. They have so stretched the meaning of the word “dandy” as to render it meaningless.
“The English invented dandyism, the French explained it,” George Walden recently wrote. I say that a dandy needs no explanation, no justification, no interpretation. Instead of analyzing the dandy, we must return to the dandy’s Regency roots and directly experience with our senses the luminosity of dandyism itself.
If you must coat the dandy with some intellectual veneer, then think of him as an existential hero. In response to our mass, abstract, anonymous, and impersonal society, he asserts his singular self. And, in dandyism’s grand tradition, he chooses to assert his superiority in the most frivolous manner possible.
I prefer to think of the dandy as a lily of the field. The Bible reads, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
So, dear reader, purge yourselves of philosophical pretensions, emulate the lilies of the field, and ponder life’s most important question: What will you wear?