Since 1863, a certain type of young man – talented perhaps, but not creative; spiritual and philosophic, yet with expensive tastes; dismissive of commercial success, yet eager for fame and acclaim – has been traipsing about, dressed like a pirate, vampire or leprechaun and calling it “dandy.” For 1863 was the year when the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro published “The Dandy” by Charles Baudelaire. Despite declaring that a dandy dresses with “absolute simplicity,” the essay has somehow been interpreted as a call to dress in a provocative fashion as a protest against bourgeois conformity. Furthermore, it has helped drive the dandy dialectic, a reciprocating process initiated by the 1844 publication of Barbey Aurevilly’s “Du Dandysme and de Georges Brummell,” in which perception of dandyism influences the practice of dandyism, which in turn further influences perception, and so on.
So are Baudelaire’s thoughts relevant to the dandy of today? More to the point, were they ever?
The iconic image of Baudelaire is drawn from his final years, his visage wasted by spleen, drugs and venereal disease. As a young man, however, he was quite the dandy. He had long hair, a full moustache, and a dark, curly beard. He had just come into his inheritance, which he quickly squandered on his mistress, hashish, opium, absinthe, food and wine, books, paintings, and – not to be forgotten – clothes. He dressed in his own individual style. He neither affected the negligent disarray of the bohemians nor followed the fashion of the aristocratic lion or incroyable. He instead designed a distinctive yet elegant cut for his clothes: slimmer trousers that buttoned under the arch of his foot, and a very long and straight coat.
His signature was the color black, even before it came to dominate men’s fashion in the 19th century. At first he added a dash of color: a red cravat paired with -pale rose gloves or a white cravat with pale gloves. Later he went all black, cravat and waistcoat included. His somber attire represented, he wrote, “a uniform livery of grief.” He was in mourning for the death of individuality, killed by the burgeoning conformist bourgeoisie. Eventually, as his abhorrence of modern society intensified and his estrangement from it increased (perhaps accelerated by the dissipation of his inheritance and the corresponding accumulation of debt), he shaved his beard, cropped his hair, and died.
Baudelaire’s essay on dandyism is taken from a longer piece, “The Painter of Modern Life.” The article is ostensibly an appreciation of a then-anonymous artist who was in fact Constantin Guys. The article goes off on many tangents, but coalesces into Baudelaire’s vision of the role of the artist as a detached critic, epitomized by the flâneur, of modern mercantile culture.
Baudelaire admires Guys’ oeuvre not so much for its technical proficiency or artistry as for the choice and treatment of subject matter: scenes of contemporary Parisian life, particularly dandies at play. Guys’ dandies were Jockey Club dandies, the descendants of Count Alfred d’Orsay and the “butterfly dandies” of the 1820s and ’30s. Not long after Brummell’s exile to France, d’Orsay succeeded to the title of world’s greatest dandy, and was one of the founders of the Jockey Club in 1834. The club was established as a meeting place for the Society for the Encouragement of Horse Racing in France, ostensibly concerned with improving French horse breeding. In reality the club became the all-male bastion of high society. For fashionable men it replaced the salon, which was headed by a hostess and had been the traditional meeting ground of female socialites. The lives of these dandies revolved around horses, riding, shooting, gambling, smoking, dining, billiards and dancing girls.
These dandies, as Baudelaire recognizes, were the aristocratic idle rich. Aggressively haughty, Baudelaire idolized them for their cold aloofness, and devotion to the pursuit of pleasure.
Baudelaire’s moral reflections (his term) on dandyism were prompted by his contemplation of Guys’ drawings of these dandies: their faces, their dress, and their “ease of bearing, that sureness of manner, that simplicity in the habit of command, that way of wearing a frock-coat or controlling a horse.” Given Baudelaire’s penchants, it would not be surprising if he had fired up the old bong and took several hits before peering at Guys’ drawings. The essay certainly suggests such: It is repetitious, circuitous and sometimes recondite. Even if not literally “under the influence,” it is best appreciated as a free-form riff on dandyism, rather than as a description of — or a prescription for — the creed.
If anything, the essay is a brief for the dandy as the ally of the artist in a crusade against the vulgarity of modern life, brought about by the galloping materialism unleashed during the reign of Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen-King” whose rise helped elevate businessmen over the aristocracy. To Baudelaire, the success of capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie paved the way for social egalitarianism, a leveling of personal distinction, conformity, increasing materialism, philistinism, a complacent belief in progress, and, above all, mediocrity.
Existing archetypes were of no use to Baudelaire in his opposition to these evils. The old aristocracy was on its way out; the rising, but not yet triumphant, bourgeoisie was the enemy, and the common man was all too common. There was a social vacuum, and into this void Baudelaire deposits the dandy.
Dandies, Baudelaire opines, usually appear in times of anomie: “Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages.” This idea comes from D’Aurevilly; but unlike D’Aurevilly, who fixed dandyism uniquely in Regency England, Baudelaire sees similarly conducive conditions in the France of his day.
So the good dandies of the Jockey Club are unknowingly drafted to be in the first line of “opposition and revolt” against the predominant commercial values and vulgar pursuit of money.
Baudelaire declares Guys’ dandies to be members of a new aristocracy, based neither on the old standards of inherited wealth and rank, nor on the new crude standards of work and money earned from commerce. To re-enforce the image of the dandy in opposition to the work ethic, Baudelaire repeatedly emphasizes that the dandy had no gainful employment. He was an “unemployed Hercules” – that is, a hero who personified Baudelaire’s cherished values of individuality and beauty. They are blessed with innate (though unspecified) “divine gifts,” which, Baudelaire is quick to add, “neither work nor money can give,” and are possessed of “the most precious, most indestructible faculties,” so sublime that they come close to “spirituality and stoicism.”
Such florid prose is most likely disingenuous. He did not really believe that the dandies depicted in Guys’ art formed a spiritual aristocracy. He knew better than that. He did not run with the fashionable, aristocratic dandies, nor did he care to. In fact, he despised them. At the opera, these dandies had disrupted, in protest, new-fangled performances that had dispensed with dancing girls, with whom they were conducting affairs. It strains credulity to believe that Baudelaire, an artist, would actually have considered such philistines to be spiritual aristocrats.
For Baudelaire, dandyism is more about attitude and less about clothes. He appreciates the dandies’ “cultivation of personal beauty,” but like D’Aurevilly before him, he downplays the importance of the dandies’ attire. Dandyism does not inhere in “an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance.” Clothes and material elegance are “no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of [the dandy’s] mind.” What little he writes about costume is dandy orthodoxy: “Perfection in dress consists in absolute simplicity… within the external limits of social conventions.” The dandy is attired in “the most flawless dress at any time of day or night.” Baudelaire cannot be blamed, then, for the subsequent generations of ersatz pirates, vampires and leprechauns who consider him their hero.
Rather than sartorial elegance, dandyism for Baudelaire is “an ill-defined social attitude.” Here again he is not breaking any new ground. Social pose was an integral part of the Regency dandy’s prescription for dandyism. Throughout “Du Dandysme,” D’Aurevilly emphasizes the primacy of the Regency dandy’s social pose over his attire. He had applied the adjective “intellectual” to describe the over-all effect of the Beau’s attire and demeanor, as distinguished from the material details of the Beau’s clothing. “Intellectual” became synonymous for D’Aurevilly with “spiritual.”
Baudelaire goes on to define dandyism’s ill-defined social attitude fairly explicitly. It consists, above all, of “cold detachment” from emotional entanglements and the pursuit of money. It manifests in a blasé attitude, encased in an implacable exterior. The dandies were “ardent” only for their own elegant “originality,” meaning individuality: a strong, independent personality, though not necessarily a creative one. The dandy’s originality consists principally of “causing surprise in others” while remaining impassive and impeccably dressed. Therein lay the dandy’s “specific beauty:” a cold exterior “resulting from the unshakable determination to remain unmoved.”
Maintaining this impassiveness, achieving perfection in dress, and engaging in the sporting activities for which the dandies were famous – all this required a self-discipline that Baudelaire likens to stoicism or a monastic regimen. Hence the oft-quoted line, “In truth, I am not altogether wrong to consider dandyism a form of religion.” Baudelaire attributes the dandy’s motivation for self-control to pride and ego. The dandy is enamored above all of “distinction.” At least in this respect Baudelaire is a realist. And again he shadows D’Aurevilly, who attributed the dandy’s motivation to vanity. Neither author, then, tries to varnish the dandy with false, conventional virtue. To the contrary, they openly esteem pride and vanity, characteristics Baudelaire thought were sorely lacking in his generation.
Some hold that “The Dandy” adds intellectual depth to the concept dandyism. Others have noted that Brummell and his Regency friends would have found Baudelaire’s essay too philosophical and pretentious. Quite frankly, it is too philosophical and pretentious for me. That is not to say that a dandy cannot have those spiritual, intellectual and moral qualities that Baudelaire ascribes to him as essential. It’s just that they’re not necessary.
Take, for example, the original Regency dandy. Brummell never for a moment pretended he had any intellectual or philosophical substance. The Beau was all surface. The Regency dandy was intentionally superficial. His appearance and manner made him superior, not merely reflected his inner superiority. If Brummell (universally recognized, even by dandy intellectuals D’Aurevilly and Baudelaire, as the archetype of the dandy) did not have these qualities, then how can they be essential dandy qualities? I am not implying that every dandy must conform to the model of Brummell, nor that dandyism is frozen in the Regency. My point is more nuanced than that: If the archetype does not possess a quality, then the quality can not be an essential part of the type.
Baudelaire also goes astray in minimizing the importance of sartorial elegance. It is, I believe, the very definition of a dandy. I leave it to the great Max Beerbohm to refute Baudelaire and D’Aurevilly and eloquently demonstrate that the art of costume, not social life, is the dandy’s essence. (See his essay “Dandies and Dandies.”) Let me instead offer specific criticisms of the results of Baudelaire’s thinking.
Baudelaire – quite unintentionally, of course – cheapens language. Once the word “dandy” had a specific meaning. It referred to a particular type of individual, and was a word of distinction. A dandy was different from a Romantic or a Bohemian or an aristocrat or an artist or a philosopher. Not only were they clearly distinct types, they also did not necessarily sympathize with each other. For example, Byron, a Romantic, was proud that the dandies welcomed him to their clubs and considered him a hale fellow well met. By making the dandy a stand-in for the aesthete or rebel, Baudelaire slurs meaning and thereby demeans language. Beginning with him (and D’Aurevilly), the word “dandy” is now a word almost devoid of real meaning.
Baudelaire also unnecessarily consigns the dandy to, in our webmaster’s phrase, “the dust-covered armoire of history.” First he confines the dandy (as did D’Aurevilly) to periods of social transition, in particular the transition between the titled aristocracy and socially mobile man. Baudelaire tacitly acknowledges his faulty reasoning: He mentions, without reconciling the contradiction, that dandyism went back to ancient history and beyond Western Europe. D’Aurevilly, on the other hand, never showed even a glimpse of recognizing the inconsistency between fixing dandyism uniquely to Regency England, while at the same time stating that dandyism was as universal as vanity.
Next, by pitting the dandy against, rather than above, the new, socially mobile classes, Baudelaire ignores Brummell’s rather important role as one of the first truly modern men, here described by John Stuart Mill:
“… no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable. Human society of old was constituted on a very different principle. All were born to a fixed social position and were mostly kept in it by law.”
Baudelaire therefore banishes the dandy from the great social and political developments of the last two centuries in favor of an imaginary aristocracy of spiritual nobility, intellect and honor that had never really existed. He describes the dandy with the melancholic metaphor of a “setting sun.” I prefer Wilde’s sanguine if ungrammatical prediction, “The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule.”
Most importantly, Baudelaire’s approach leads to a disengagement from modern life, a kind of weltschmerz. This disengagement is what sartorially leads to would-be dandies dressing like pirates, vampires or leprechauns.
Contrary to the implications of Baudelaire’s analysis, there is an important role for the dandy in today’s society, where capitalism and social egalitarianism have essentially triumphed, and an accepted aristocracy is all but extinct. It is a role that Baudelaire would approve. For the dandy still stands for absolute perfection in dress. In a society grown increasingly abstract, mass, collectivist, bureaucratic, anonymous and impersonal, the dandy is more than ever a beacon of individuality. His insistence on standards plays an even more vital role in a debased culture where the lowest common denominator is the yardstick.
I suggest an approach different from Baudelaire’s. In order to give the dandy his due, rather than unnecessarily add qualities, however noble, to the dandy archetype, it is better to strip the dandy down to his quintessence. Ergo, a dandy is a male, of whatever class and wheresoever situate, who, dressing within the limits of prevailing social conventions and the broad laws of fashion, is recognizable by his distinctive, elegant and confident sartorial style. Baudelaire would concede as much. Then, having established this touchstone, ask the question: What does being a dandy mean in a particular time and place?
Approaching the dandy in this way will result in a better understanding both of the nature of the dandy and of his significance in society, whatever the time or the mores. It will also illumine those times and mores.
The real problem is that the logical result of Baudelaire’s essay is to drain all pleasure out of being a dandy. He converts the dandy from a warm-blooded (if -cold-hearted) human being into an abstract symbol, a “negative ideal,” a protest. The legacy of this intellectualization has been to turn the dandy from a person who sparkled in civilized society into a disenchanted loner.
Until Baudelaire shanghaied the dandy to be a comrade against capitalism and egalitarianism, dandies had fun. They slept late. After they finally arose, they spent two hours getting dressed. They wore fine clothes. They ingested good food, fine spirits and wines, and several forms of tobacco. They entertained each other with sparkling conversations spiced with impertinent wit. They ogled women and quizzed each other. They went to the theatre, the opera, dances and other public entertainments and amusements. They spent weekends in the country. They gambled all night. They rode and they dueled. They collected objets d’art and dancing girls. They were the toast of society and the envy of all.
Despite its title, “The Dandy” is actually not about dandyism. It is about aesthetics: Baudelaire’s protest against the increasing mediocrity and vulgarity of modern life. It does not attempt to describe the ideal dandy. It attempts to describe the ideal artist or, to steal Camus’ phrase, man in revolt. It is a criticism of a society where artistic and social values have been lowered. Since the publication of the essay, ideas about dandyism have been muddled.
The legacy of Baudelaire’s “The Dandy” has not been good for dandyism. It is time to relegate it to the status of an historical curiosity, and bring back the dancing girls.