When people reclaim for their own a derogatory term society has used against them, it is often called “inversion” — the act of transforming a pejorative into a positive, an epithet into a proper appellation. “Queer” is probably the most widely known example. “Affected provincial” was coined by Camille Paglia to describe suburban wannabe sophisticates and busybody ladies who lunch. The fellow who cribbed that one for himself was clever indeed.
This being America’s Independence Day, we’d like to note that both “dandy” and “Yankee” have undergone various inversions and reversions throughout history. The two terms link the United Kingdom and the United States, symbolizing the ebb and flow of ideas between the two nations, starting with a comic ditty called “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It is remarkable that the song that would play accompaniment to the Thirteen Colonies through the Revolutionary War contains both the terms “dandy” and “macaroni.”
Imported from Scots into the English mainstream in the 1700s, “dandy” was considered a derogatory term for a person with pretensions above his station. “Yankee” was also highly derogatory and referred to a coward. British troops used it to mock American Colonial militias who, untrained and undisciplined, often broke and ran before the advancing “thin red line.” British troops subsequently penned “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to bait the Colonials:
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-Riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy!
The term “macaroni,” of course, refers to the heavily rouged and wigged fop of the period.
When the tide of battle began to turn – thanks to French and German instruction as well as the fortitude of the colonial patriots – American troops adopted the Yankee epithet and the song, inverting it for their own. Long before Francis Scott Key penned the “Star Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle” was the anthem of American independence. Today the most successful team at our national pastime is the New York Yankees. The Voice of America radio station begins and ends each day with “Yankee Doodle.” Most Americans who travel abroad today, despite the current tensions, are proud to be referred to as “Yanks.”
On the contrary, shares of “dandy” stock have shown more volatility. In Brummell and D’Orsay’s day, “dandy” enjoyed something close to grudging respect among the bon ton, though some, like Carlysle, saw nothing in it of virtue. During the high Victorian period the term was used to describe the terminally overdressed, the fancy and the over-the-top. (Viewers of the superb HBO Old West series “Deadwood” hear the word used frequently to describe a “dude” or other fancily dressed character, which is an accurate portrayal of how the word was received at the time.) In Belle Epoch France, le dandysme became practically an honored branch of philosophy, a tradition that continues even today. Beerbohm and the late Victorians and Edwardians brought back to the term some measure of its Regency glamor, if not respectability. “The future,” claimed Wilde, “belongs to the dandy.”
Sadly, two world wars, fascism, communism and other ugly and weighty world developments got in the way of the dandy’s future. At the end of the 20th century, the words “dandy” and “dandyism” enjoyed something of a renaissance, albeit mainly among academics who have used it as a pawn for their side in the culture wars. As for Dandyism.net, it endeavors to breathe new life into dandyism while recognizing its long and elegant tradition.
On the surface, Yankee and dandy might not seem to have much in common. But both share a strong desire to be independent in thought and action, to live and be regarded as an individual, and both enjoy a love of freedom within a framework of balanced, self-evident truths. For Yankees, these desires are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The dandy’s truths, though more loosely defined (and thus akin to the British Constitution’s implied structure), are nevertheless as exacting, perhaps even more so. To be both a Yankee and a dandy is thus a demanding calling.
But perhaps James Cagney best brings these ideas together, along with a stiff belt of Gotham City moxie, in the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy:”
Dandyism.net wishes all Yankees – as well as lovers of art, style and intellectual liberty – a languorous but impeccable Fourth of July.