By Nathaniel Adams
The crowd’s attire was an exercise in juxtaposition: cravats and pocket squares, sandals and cargo shorts, though happily not on the same person. There was also the requisite smattering of women who looked as if they were auditioning to be extras on Masterpiece Theater.
It was the Housing Works bookstore in New York, where on October 4th a panel discussion entitled “Dandyism Today” was held featuring Lord Whimsy; author of “The Affected Provincial’s Companion,” Alex Wilcox of Lord Willy’s (and Whimsy’s personal tailor), milliner Ellen Colon-Lugo, and fashion journalist Cator Sparks.
The evening commenced with Whimsy reading a few passages from his book. He started off with an essay called “On the Perils of Sportswear,” a luddite manifesto railing against all clothing that is synthetic, mass-produced or comfortable. He then read a desperately aesthetic ode to nature, and finally a novelty poem called “My Love Spurneth Yams.” A few chuckles were heard from the crowd, but most people seemed confused by the archaic language. It is rather impressive for someone today to cultivate such florid prose as Whimsy’s, however the reading might have been more striking had Whimsy given it with more conviction and confidence. This lack of conviction, along with a pervasive vagueness about everything discussed, would turn out to be a hindrance throughout the evening.
Whimsy then gave a very brief history of dandyism – beginning with Brummell and ending with Wilde – setting the stage for a discussion of dandyism in the modern era. The first question should have been more problematic than it was: Whimsy asked the panel for their personal definitions of dandyism. This question is known to provoke radically different responses. Colon-Lugo began with the standard answer of a devout Brummellian: “anti-frippery.” Sparks, the only gay man on the panel, went with an answer more akin to Wilde: “an aesthete who appreciates the best in life.” He also brought up the fact that many people today associate dandyism with homosexuality, to which Wilcox stated that “all dandies are incredibly comfortable in their sexuality.”
As an example of the sexually-comfortable dandy, Wilcox cited Marilyn Manson. It is remarkable that most examples of modern dandies offered nowadays tend to be iconoclastic gender-benders like Manson, Little Richard or David Bowie. Surely there are others? Sparks quickly chimed in and brought the conversation to its inevitable conclusion: Rock stars are the modern dandies, often arising from youth subcultures. It’s a common enough point, and it elicited another round of assenting nods from the panel, which hardly made for interesting listening.
Whimsy then postulated that the dandy is traditionally a rebel. The plucky panel went on to agree on various levels. Unfortunately, not much elaboration was provided and nobody questioned Whimsy’s definition of a “rebel.” The idea that the dandy must be a rebel seems somewhat too crass for a dandy’s supposed refinement. Why should one have to be a rebel in order to be oppositional? One would think that rebelling against the mainstream is far more obvious than the dandy’s subtler disdain for the commonplace. Colon-Lugo claimed that since there is no more aristocracy, the dandy must rebel against other things. Everyone agreed. Sparks then suggested modernity as the dandy’s enemy (like Oscar Wilde, I believe the dandy to be the ultimate symbol of modernity in any age). Whimsy then brought up a point to back up his rebel argument: If someone wants to rebel through style, two options are available. The first is to go the bohemian route and take an almost ascetic view of style and fashion. The other, dandyism, takes more ingenuity, for one places oneself above the status quo instead of below it. Unfortunately the next obvious question wasn’t asked: “In a world in which the dandy and the bohemian can be sold to the masses as prefabricated looks, what power can they still hold as symbols?”
Whimsy next asked an interesting if strangely-worded question: “Is dandyism necessary today?” Unfortunately it was never properly answered, and nobody thought to ask whether it was ever really necessary, and whether its raison d’etre is that it’s not necessary. Instead the conversation shifted into a debate over the difference between fashion and style. Once again, accord was reached by the panel members by agreeing that they were all far more stylish than they were fashionable.
However, Wilcox added that occasionally the trends of the fashion world fall in step with the dandy, which affects the fashion world greatly and the dandy not at all. This is certainly an intriguing idea. Whimsy ended with the question of whether dandies should adapt or hold to tradition. Wilcox, who is obviously a man with a foot in both camps (being a tailor/retailer and thus motivated by sales) declared that the dandy must be versatile and constantly adapt. I agree with this idea, but it didn’t seem to concur with what he said in New York Magazine: “Look at Michael Caine in ‘The Italian Job.’ The suit at that point in history was perfect. It’s all downhill since then.” That doesn’t sound like a terribly pro-adaptive stance to me.
Finally questions were invited from the audience, and I perked up in hope that some discord might erupt. The first question, directed at Whimsy, seemed accusatory enough to raise some contention: “Isn’t your position merely nostalgic and anti-progress?” But Whimsy pulled the same defensive card from his sleeve that college students have been pulling since the term was invented: “I’m simply borrowing from the past like any good postmodernist.” Credit must be given for Brummell-like simplicity: This answer might just be the ultimate non-answer.
The next audience member thrusted with “You seem to have absolved dandyism of any political elements.” All the panelists agreed once again and resorted to the ultimate cliché: Clothes are an outward expression of one’s inner being. Perhaps. Or you could be covering your inner self up. More correctly, aren’t one’s clothes an expression of what one desires to be, a country lord, for example?
I was getting more and more frustrated with the endless harmony of ideas, so I decided to ask a question which I have been asked countless times and I knew to be a hotly debatable issue, something which the brightest dandy historians often wrestle with. I sat up straight and raised my hand. Whimsy pointed at me and said, “You, sir.”
“What about female dandies?” I enunciated as clearly as I could. Several women nodded and one quietly applauded. I was hoping that someone would shout “Not possible!” and a frenzied whirlwind of purses and umbrellas would bear down upon him. It was not to be. Whimsy turned to Colon-Lugo and said “Ellen, would you care to take this one?” So my question was shunted to the one female panel member, and the answer was as predictable as I had feared: “Dandyism is a state of mind. Unfortunately dandyism is a misogynistic term, but more and more women with the dandy mindset can be identified.” The list of usual suspects was trotted out: Annie Lennox, George Sand, and Josephine Baker. Everyone on stage seemed satisfied.
Then a man in the audience declared that for all of the panel’s talk on dressing well and spurning sportswear, he felt that the people who put the most effort into their appearance were certain young black men who spend a good deal of their time and money matching their clothes perfectly and keeping everything immaculately clean. This was perhaps the most important question asked that night, as it politically confronted the elitism often found in dandyism and also suggested that dandyism might not be truly adaptive or progressive (and therefore might be obsolete) if it doesn’t include these young men in its ranks.
The panel members all agreed that those young men were very well dressed, and the discussion came to a close.
Afterward I approached Whimsy and told him that I was covering the event for Dandyism.net. He grimaced and said “Oh, man. Those guys hate me.” [Editor's note: As always, Whimsy has a marked facility for overstatement.]
In conclusion, the panelists were a little too polite for their own good (Whimsy has noted this in his blog). In addition, I’m not sure how many of them would agree with being identified as dandies. Such a potent subject needs a variety of experts, and this panel was comprised not so much of experts on the topic at hand, but experts in related fields (tailor, journalist, hatmaker). Thus an element of the dandy’s subversive position was lacking, and this might be due to the fact that only Whimsy among them (to his credit) remains a relative idler. The others appear to have very demanding day jobs, none of which is “being a dandy.”
In the scientific community progress is often reached by disagreements. Ideas and theories are challenged and refuted and as a result scientific knowledge is one step closer to the truth. Judging by this event, this particular dandy community might be lacking in disagreement, and as a result might be stuck. Of course, that might be perfectly fine with some people.
But perhaps next time they should invite a bohemian to play devil’s advocate.