Drag Strip

Dandyism recently made a jaunty appearance at New York Fashion Week. Unfortunately it was on the runway of a women’s fashion show.

Ralph Lauren’s Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection showcased a number of outfits echoing Brummell and Beerbohm:

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The ensembles are bound to rekindle the vexed question of whether women who raid men’s closets are really dandies, or merely females in drag.

On one side, professional provocateurs like Sebastian Horsley portentously pronounce, “The key attribute of dandyism — detachment — cannot come from someone with a womb.” This misogynistic attitude dates back to Baudelaire, who wrote “La femme est toujours vulgaire, c’est-à-dire le contraire du dandy.”

He then described in very vulgar terms exactly why women are vulgar.

On the other side, gender activists like Jack Dandy insist not only that women can be dandies, but that they’re better at it than men. This in flagrant disregard of 200 years of literature and scholarship on dandyism in which women play no part in the Brummell-D’Orsay-Baudelaire- Wilde-Wolfe continuum. And assuming women can embody the male archetype of dandy, is their dandyism dependent upon wearing men’s clothing?

Then there are the feminists and queer and gender theorists who, after much unbiased scholarly research, reach the foregone conclusion that women can be dandies because they can be anything they put their minds to.

The ironic thing is that all three viewpoints entirely depend on the dandy being a man.

Horsley and Baudelaire because they say so; Jack because she dresses like a dandy precisely so that she can dress like a man; and the academics because the dandy’s significance to gender studies lies in that he is a man who adopts certain characteristics that a gender-biased society arbitrarily perceives as feminine.

You may accuse us of being practitioners of the politics of exclusion (and some have), but we believe only men can be dandies, just as only women can be nuns.

Take a look at the photos. We can see that the women are dressed in imitations of menswear altered for the shape of women’s bodies. They are essentially women in drag.

But drag means something very different when applied to women than when applied to men. Women can and do dress ironically because they can wear men’s clothes and yet retain a feminine, if piquant, sexuality. Marlene Dietrich, for example:


A man dressed in women’s clothing, however, forfeits his manhood, which is why scenes depicting this are common in comedies. Shakespeare wrote “Clothes proclaim the man” because they really do proclaim men, and manhood, in a way they don’t for women, for whom everything is ultimately just fashion.

In the end, the question of whether women can be dandies is pointless. Naturally people are free to dress, act and call themselves whatever they wish. We just reserve the right to criticize their taste.

Which leads us back to the images above. Our judgment?

We’ve never seen such a charming display of retro-eccentricity.

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15 Responses to “Drag Strip”

  1. M Says:

    Well, I don’t care what you call ’em, or what they call themselves. I just call ’em hot.


  2. JES Says:

    Well, when I choose to dress in a more, shall we say, manly fashion, I do choose the garb of the dandy. Of course, as a woman, I’m able to harken back to an earlier dandy era. What is fashion on me, is costume on a man. But, maybe there’s something about the dandy’s clothes that accentuates both the masculine and the feminine, however one chooses to take it. I’m thinking of both Dietrich and of Tobey Damnit (as played by the wonderful Terence Stamp, who chose his guru because of his custom shirts) “I’m masculine enough for the men and feminine enough for the women.” I loved loved loved loved this RL collection–I’d wear almost anything in it (femme and butch).

  3. RJS Says:

    Splendid article.

  4. Laguna Beach Trad Says:

    Those birds look positively ravishable. Very cute. But, of course women can’t be dandies. Do we really need to argue the point? Modern people, especially Americans, are so dense, with no common sense or history, that we have constantly to argue first principles and explain the obvious time and again. I will concede, women are particularly good at playing dress-up, which is what is going on here in the photos.

  5. Ferrando Says:

    A very thoughtful piece on what might be termed the Romaine Brooks Brothers collection from RL.

    Interesting that there’s a much wider spectrum of possibilities when women dress as men. In theatre or opera (where “trouser roles” are a tradition) or on film, cross-dressing can be mined for charm (Viola, Cherubino, Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels”), symbolize spunk or heroism (Portia, Julia in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Leonore in “Fidelio”), or radiate a whole range of sexual vibes (Prince Orlovsky, the Principal Boy in panto, Dietrich, Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlett”).

    When men dress from the other side of the closet, though, there’s a straight comic line from Charley’s Aunt to Cary Grant in “I Was a Male War Bride” to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to Tootsie.

  6. M Says:

    Just looking at the 40 Years o’ Ralph vids at: http://www.ralphlauren.com/home/index.jsp?direct

    It appears that quite a few of RL’s dresses and ladies’ outfits are Edwardian inspired. I have to say that the sexed-up Edwardian gowns are, shall we say, to my taste… and how.

    The music for the show, on the other hand, is just plain stupid.


  7. Will Says:

    I once dated a woman, now sadly deceased, who went clubbing in black tie and a top hat.

    Vive la difference.

  8. Ferrando Says:

    Lauren is the cover boy for the recent “Luxury Issue” of Forbes, which also includes stories on Thom Browne’s assault on Brooks Brothers and Marc Jacobs behaving badly. Contrast the discreet Photoshop beauty treatment Ralph gets on the cover with the much starker black and white shot inside. Between his wrinkles, the snappy pinstriped suit, and his teeny frame, he’s turning into a lookalike for the aged Duke of Windsor. Which, I guess, he’d take as a complement.

  9. Mr Sponge Says:

    A sensual woman dressed in man’s clothing looks like a sensual woman. Though the packaging is unusual, the contents of the parcel is delightfully enhanced.

  10. hrund Says:

    but is there nothing more to dandy than clothing, there must be some kind of essens to having it, that makes a man a man and a woman a woman. I don´t think that putting a model in a mens clothing have anything to do with dandyism.

  11. sam Says:

    They look very cool!!^-^When i saw the pictures I thought they were guys!!! haha Seriously though, poeple should just dress in a way that is true to them. It doesn’t matter anyway, clothes are clothes! Why do some people have to make something so simple into something complicated? Just be comfortable, and most importantly be yourself!!!!!^-^

  12. Warren O'Leary Says:

    More menswear mocked upon for being trendy from the 18 th century; such fashion gender bias and bigotry against males permeates all levels of menswear at all levels of time. In essence, it is to minimize what is acceptible as menswear for men to maximize women’s potpouuri of fashion choices, icluding ” stealing of mens fashions ” to enhance their stockpile of cross-dressing/ transvestism fashion at our expense. Sexism at its finest, especially the last fifty years.

  13. Lili Says:

    I\’ll admit that there are some issues with the concept of men being effeminate in dandy and so forth, but it is not very gentlemanly to be critical of those who love dandyism but cannot help their gender.

    Also, may I pass on a few suggestions. Firstly, you are basing some of your argument on the concept of 200 years of study on dandies, in the first 100 or so of which many people hadn\’t had the thought to include women at all. Cross-dressing is still rarely accepted, and gender studies have a long way to go before approaching such difficult ideas, so it really isn\’t surprising that you haven\’t found mention of women yet.

    Secondly, you do have a point with the fact that the same rights are not afforded a man in women\’s clothing. It almost seems that you are opposed to female dandies due to the unfortunate issue of men not being able to be similarly accepted in women\’s clothing. But to pass along the idea that masculinity is contained in such things and to so flippantly suggest that there is no social consequence in what women wear, that it is \’ultimately just fashion\’ to them, is to continue perpetuating these problems.

    Finally, there are male nuns – they\’re called monks and priests.

    Well written, but please choose your words carefully when discussing sensitive issues such as gender.

  14. Warren O'Leary Says:

    Unfortuneatly this is a ” victim ” to womens’freedom of cross-dressing/transvestism into traditional, historical menswear; it limits the freedom for males within menswear. Examples would be stove-pipe legged pants ( Jeggings/leggings ), stirrup pants, tights, pants tucked into boots, cowboy or dress equestrian ( military ) which the last fifty years is offered only to females quest to emulate males in Western society. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Therefore females should not wear menswear as their first, second or third choice of preference, only when the situation arises such as horse back riding. Females would not tolerate transvestism by males especially if it negatively impacts their freedoms within traditional feminine , historical fashions. ” What is good for the ” goose ” is good for the ” gander ” !

  15. Madame Butterfly Says:

    In your previous articles, you yourself have mentioned that “dandies are only as good as the era they live in,” well the ambiance is changing and it’s time to keep up with the times. One cannot measure dandyism based on premises set forth ages ago, but one has to adapt and progress on the movement. So whoever dictates that being a dandy is purely based on the male attire? The dandy has it-factor and is multi-dimensional,so why get fixated on this ancient premise of gender-based clothing, or gender all together.

    The post-modern dandy should definitely be androgynous. Having too much of a jolly time on traveling the world. Free of the world concepts of gender. Adaptable to whatever suits its performance. For if a dandy is truly a master of self-image, then shouldn’t she/he be able to fool the world into perceiving him/her as anything desired. Be it male, be it female.

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