The Fake’s Progress

horsley.jpgEvery era gets the dandies it deserves.

The Regency got Brummell, a true sartorial innovator whose wit was as crisp as his country-washed linen. Count D’Orsay alleviated Victorian stuffiness with his manly charm, and the Edwardian Era was graced by Saki and Max Beerbohm, who all but reinvented the rapier wit. The Deco era had thoroughly modern Noel Coward, Lucius Beebe appeased Atomic Age anxiety with quaint anachronism as well as a poisoned pen, and the big-money ’80s saw the rise of another dandy satirist, Tom Wolfe.

Though they had different personalities and temperaments, these great dandies all shared certain qualities, including style, wit, aplomb and often a mild eccentricity. Many also enjoyed some measure of celebrity — how should we have known them otherwise? And while some dandies of the past certainly enjoyed their fame, the artists among them put their work first and did not pursue celebrity for its own sake. “L’homme est rien,” said Flaubert. “L’oeuvre est tout.”

But who in our present era is celebrated for his dandyism? When the words “dandy” and “dandyism” appear in print, what names are written in conjunction with them? Who, in the eyes of the media and public, are the successors of Brummell, D’Orsay and Beerbohm?

In a 2006 article, The Guardian attempted to answer these very questions. Published in light of Ian Kelly’s Brummell biography and the BBC miniseries “This Charming Man,” the article cites as Brummell’s successors, among others, two pop stars: Brian Ferry, a self-proclaimed “pimpernel” who, the author gushes, “now wears Prada, Hedi Slimane and Kilgour,” and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, whose “ghetto fabulous” look consists of “jeans and $10,000 worth of jewelry around his neck.”

Others recently celebrated as dandies in the press include Combs’ former umbrella-carrier-in-chief, Fonzworth Bentley (real name Derek Watkins), OutKast frontman André 3000 (real name Benjamin) — whose tailored Duke of Windsor/Harlem Renaissance-inspired duds have lately given way to outfits more conducive to farming than strolling boulevards — British rock star Pete Doherty, who dresses like an Amish notary, and Patrick McDonald, whose penchant for cosmetics at times makes him look like Liza Minelli.

Even when the scholarly speak of dandyism, celebrity usually takes precedence over style. Aquentin.jpg few decades ago, Quentin Crisp was often trotted out as the quintessential modern dandy. Never mind that, charming though he was, the man looked like a grandmother playing the nickel slots in Vegas. In “Who’s a Dandy,” George Walden nominates talk-show host Jonathan Ross, pop star Jarvis Cocker, a bevy of tabloid “it’ girls, fashionably nihilistic artists, couture designers and the like. And Russian historian Olga Vainshtein (a reader of, in her recent paper “In Search of the Modern-Day Dandy: Makeover Games,” champions pop stars like Annie Lennox and Eric Clapton, again arguing that being conspicuously cool trumps being conspicuously well dressed in today’s dandyland.

Among the latest poster boys for this new popsy, artsy, celebrity-driven dandyism is artist, writer and methamphetamine enthusiast Sebastian Horsley, who recently published “Dandy in the Underworld,” his memoir of living and whoring in London’s Soho fringe.

Horsley appears to have taken the Oscar Wilde epigrams “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” and “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” for an actual creed. In a recent interview in The Chap, Horsley was asked, “What is your idea of complete sophistication?” He answered, in a typically Wildean spin on Baudelaire, “Complete vulgarity. The vulgar man is always the most sophisticated, for the very desire to be sophisticated is vulgar. And without an element of vulgarity no man can become a work of art.”

Horsley gallivants through “Dandy in the Underworld” dressed up in an array of colorful custom-made velvet suits, giant tie knots, nail varnish, spiked hair, and shirts with covered buttons. (As if to showcase his exquisite vulgarity, he tells us these come from Turnbull & Asser, though he fails to mention how much they cost.) Gadding about Soho in this get-up, Horsley comes off as the perfect modern-day dandy — at least to those educated enough to have some inkling of what dandyism means, though not enough to appreciate its fine distinctions. To everyone else, no doubt, he just looks like a twit.

A persistent theme running through Horsley’s rhetoric is the idea of the “real fake.” As he says in a video snippet recently posted on YouTube, “The dandy is the great illusionist who makes you believe in something that doesn’t exist. Everyone else is just as phony as I am; I’m just a real fake.”

dscn5402.gifIn a review of Lord Whimsy’s “Affected Provincial’s Companion,” Horsley writes, “Brummell, whom [Whimsy] describes as ‘the progenitor of dandyism,’ was aspirational, and no real dandy is aspirational. As for Wilde, what a phony he was. And not even a real phony! The dandy just happens to be the biggest, the best and most beautiful fraud of them all. His doctrine is a laughable conceit, a delightful illusion.”

We’ll not dwell on whether Horsley is right or wrong about either Brummell or Wilde (hint: he’s one-third right). The fact remains that Whimsy rubbed Horsley the wrong way. (And, by his own account, Horsley isn’t terribly picky about how he’s being rubbed or who’s doing the rubbing). Yet the two have more in common than either would care to admit.

Just as Horsley is a real fake, Whimsy is a self-proclaimed charlatan. “[Dandyism] isn’t obsessed with being ‘down-to-earth,’ or ‘authentic,'” Whimsy writes in the magazine Swindle.

Charlatanism, conceit, disingenuousness, inauthenticity, perversity, rebellion, garishness, costumery — why have these become the essential qualities of dandyism?

The decadent aesthetes of the fin-de-siecle certainly have a strong influence on the connotations of the word dandy today, which invokes in many the troika image of Jim Morrison, Little Lord Fauntleroy and the Vampire Lestat. Never mind that the aesthete of the 1880s was the anti-dandy of his day, in the same way a flower child of the 1960s was the anti -company man of his. In “Dandies,” James Laver devotes an entire chapter, entitled “The Enemies of Dandyism,” to debunking the aesthetes-as-dandies canard. But the canard has become so widely accepted that even Whimsy, who purports to be something of an expert on the topic, can utter a statement like, “[Dandyism] made its way back to England where Oscar Wilde and his aesthetes gave it a more playful, mischievous quality that eventually led to camp.”

Since the publication of Ellen Moers’ “The Dandy” in 1960, scholars have been on a dandy binge. In the eye of many academics, the postmodern dandy is a transgressive (and sometimes transsexual) anti-establishment icon. He is anyone from the two-faced social climber nibbling at the Prince’s hors d’oeuvres table while smirking behind his back, to the performance artist freaking the squares by rubbing bat feces on his testicles. And it is here that the dandy becomes synonymous with pop culture celebrity.

“Long before the pop music star or the motion picture idol,” writes Rhonda Garelick, author of the seminal postmodern treatise on the subject, “thedsc00127.jpg dandy had made an art form of commodifying personality. Dandyism is itself a performance, the performance of a highly stylized painstakingly constructed self, a solipsistic icon.”

Likewise, “Dandyism is a strategy for eluding the banality of mainstream society,” writes Lord Whimsy. And Horsley similarly avers, “Camus saw the dandy as a revolutionary. Surely that must be the aim of all true subversion: in the end you must be prepared to subvert yourself.”

These twin themes of dandy-as-showman and dandy-as-mainstream-defying-radical have naturally wended their way into the pages of the popular press.

If it is difficult to find authentic dandies in the press, it is because real-world examples tend to be elusive. They’re rarely celebrities, and when they are, their clothing and demeanor are usually secondary to the talent that got them celebrated in the first place (journalist Gay Talese and physicist-author Thomas Fink come to mind).

It’s comparatively easy, by contrast, to walk into any vintage clothing shop in New York or Seattle and come across a motley crew of genre dressers: neo-Victorians, quasi-Edwardian hipsters (lots of these in Whimsy’s Swindle article), Bunthornian aesthetes, McDermott & McGough clones, and other sub-types all looking like they’re on their way to a barbershop quartet convention. Compared to these clownish characters, elegant men in contemporary dress who uphold dandyism’s most rigorous principles — such as Baudelaire’s “dandyism must eschew exoticism either of time or place; he must never seem to be in fancy dress” — may seem a trifle dull.

It’s easier to dress like Baudelaire than it is to dress within his dictates.

Call it bobo dandyism. A bobo (short for “bourgeois bohemian”) is an educated professional who professes to reject the ways of the establishment and embraces a quasi-bohemian ethos. In Bobos in Paradise,” David Brooks writes, “Bobos have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success.” Bobos want the rewards of the marketplace but can’t bear to be branded as sellouts. The worst insult you can hurl at a bobo is to call him “mainstream.”

eccentrico3.jpgWith his hodge-podge of artsy pretension, declared working class background, misuse of French phrases, professed liberality combined with the conservative taste for nostalgic gentility, faux title and tireless self-marketing, Whimsy is the bobo dandy extraordinaire. His twee-and-crumpets dandyism appeals to those pseudo-creative, middle class, liberal arts college kids who trumpet their supposed alienation and who think they can elude the banality of mainstream society by following what Brooks calls the bobo prime directive: “Thou shalt construct thine own identity.”

For many of them, sadly, this involves sipping watered-down absinthe, prancing about in a cape, growing antiquated facial hair and spending too much time in front of a mirror trying to look archaic and outrageous.

Diddy, Bentley, Andre, McDonald, Horsley and Whimsy all adhere to the bobo prime directive in their own way, and soon they even begin to buy into it themselves.

For his part, Whimsy has been kind enough to catalogue his descent into Zelig-like self-absorption and celebrity personality disorder. In May, 2007, an article appeared in Wired magazine on “viral marketing” in which Nick Currie (a friend of Whimsy’s) called out Whimsy’s enthusiasm for self-reflexive marketing, writing, “Sometimes, reading the comments Lord Whimsy leaves on my blog, I’m not sure where the promotion ends and the man begins. Like Whimsy, I have an alter ego. Like him, I have ‘product’ out there to promote.”

Responding on his blog, Whimsy demurred:

[W]ell, that firmly lodged a piece of cereal in my sinus this morning… [T]he artifice I employed began as a playful lark — a kind of crude, overstated mummery. But over time it became less of an act as I slowly invested more of myself into the persiflage. Over time the mask became more like a face, but nevertheless was still was taken for a mask.

Today, when I don the vestments of my self-appointed office, I feel as though I am hiding in plain sight; in a sense, presenting myself as a sham has allowed me to be more like myself than ‘being myself’ would have permitted…

Similarly, Horsley’s YouTube dandyism is ideal for a reality-TV age in which broadcasting your failings, and finding ways to popularize yourself and profit from them, is de rigueur.

The central contradiction these “dandies” betray is a manic desire to gaze down at the masses from a perch of superior refinement while at the same time craving their accolades. Horsley, for example, makes no bones about looking down his nose at the middle classes from which he springs. But when his publisher at first rejected “Dandy in the Underworld,” he was so devastated he reportedly contemplated suicide. Likewise, Whimsy ostensibly wishes to enlighten the very masses whose vulgarity is necessary for him to stand out as a delicate soul. His publisher, seeing the contradiction between Whimsy’s anti-mainstream rhetoric and the desire for popular success, marketed his book with the tagline, “Rest assured, gentle reader, Whimsy loves you all.”

Once dandies begin expressing this kind of gushing love for mankind, rather than taking a wryfonz.jpg pleasure in its foibles, we have reached the end of dandyism.

If today’s dandies are eager to buy their own brands of poppycock, the press is doubly so. And why shouldn’t it be? Journalists are perpetually pressed for time and always on the lookout for a story that will practically write itself. It doesn’t have to be right, just colorful.

A moth-collecting bobo is a moth-collecting bobo. But put “Lord” before his nom de plume, dress him in a custom-made tartan suit with lavender lining and he becomes a postmodern Oscar Wilde. Similarly, a self-destructive, speedballing sleaze in a t-shirt is just that. But let him pimp his personal bents and character flaws clad in a velvet suit and music-hall version of a gent’s shirt and tie, nail him to a cross (and make sure those cameras are rolling, darling), and he’s suddenly the new Montesquiou. A rich, historically nuanced male archetype is reduced to caricature, and dandyism becomes conflated with ego, exhibitionism and perversity. “People seem to find ‘phonies’ more interesting,” Whimsy has said, and he ought to know.

But in our shallow, self-centered and altogether craptastic era of subjectivity and relativism, what can you expect? To paraphrase George Moore, no dandy is greater than the age he lives in.

Pictured are Sebastian Horsley (via The Chap), Quentin Crisp, Lord Whimsy, Patrick McDonald, unidentified Max Miller impersonator (via JermynSavile), and Fonzworth Bentley.

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28 Responses to “The Fake’s Progress”

  1. literary syphilis Says:

    Full marks for your use of “craptastic,” though I would have also accepted “craptacular.”

    That said, I can’t help but feel that the dandy has always (or at least, since Wilde) been a caricature of himself. The Decadent mentality of contrivance and artificiality is still very much an aspect of the dandy spirit; the only difference between dandies modern and dandies from the days of yore is that the modern ones have given up even attempting to attain some measure of verisimilitude.

  2. Decadent Says:

    Articles like this make me borderlessly joyful for joining this forum. After downright devouring Mr Mattis’s carnival of words I came to realize that there was a time when I was fast developing into a Bobo. saved me and my neck.

  3. The Nouveau Edwardian Says:

    A nice meaty article from the snark master! A good read, but it does make me wonder how individuality fits into dandyism? Dandyism is obviously many different things to many different people. That is the charm of dandyism is its individuality and its elements of appeal which speak differently to one and all. There are elements which dandies have in common which Mattis points out, but beyond that it seems to me to be open to personal interpretation.

  4. Verve and Panache Says:

    I agree, an excellent bit of snarkery. Surely worth a thread of its own in the forum.

  5. Mr Sponge Says:

    Acerbic, witty and Horsley is neatly “nailed up”.Renewed my faith in the power of dandy vitriol.

  6. JermynSavile Says:

    Just thought I’d mention that I’d be surprised if the photograph described as being an “unidentified man via the New York Social Diary” came from the source you claim. My reasons for doubting this being that I took the bloody photograph and I think, with some degree of certainty, that I’ve never been in New York in my life.

    The picture is of a man in Brighton, England (he is still ‘unidentified’, so you got that right) attending the unveiling of a memorial statue to Max Miller, the greatest stand-up comedian of the 20th century. He isn’t a dandy nor, as far as I know, does he aspire to be one. What he does aspire to be is a Max Miller impersonator – something he does quite well. As for the man he was impersonating, well Miller’s style was his own, and had nothing to do with being a dandy either.

    You are of course welcome to the picture, or any others I might make public, but would appreciate it if you’d do the decent thing and, while I’m not expecting miracles, label it a little less misleadingly.

  7. Nick Willard Says:

    Dear JermynSavile, Glad that you visit the site and that you read the posts so carefully. I’ve made the change as requested & will investigate further. I found and posted the photo. Nick Willard, Managing Editor.

  8. JermynSavile Says:

    Dear Nick,

    Appreciate it. I can link you to the original posting if you need proof.

    Can’t claim to be either that regular or careful a reader, but the picture was hard to miss. Have started checking for new posts on again, after a long lay-off, since you took up the helm. You’ve transformed the quality of the Home page.


  9. Mr Thompson Says:

    Hearty applause for M2! Brilliant. It seems that what the “postmodern dandy” truly is, is Bobo the Clown. There, I’ve said it. Cut through all the self-promoting inflationary hype, and McDonald (irony intended) is a clown. All he needs is floppy shoes and a red squeekyball nose. Whimsy? Clown. Horsley? Please–look at that collar. CLOWN.

  10. HRH The Duke of Windsor Says:

    Brilliant bit of work Michael. Well done!

  11. Ryan Oakley Says:

    A good article. I don’t understand why anyone claims to be anything. Let alone a dandy. If I was going to claim to be something, I’d at least pick something that would benefit me. Like a faith healer. Something along those lines.

    And if Horsley is “a real fake” doesn’t that make him a fake fake?

  12. JES Says:

    Or a genuine phoney?

  13. RJS Says:

    Indeed why do we so eagerly desire to belong to a predefined group? It is part of the human need to belong, and Dandyism, Chappism, Futurism, Dadism… all the Isms and not so Isms testify to that fact.

    I did the “How dandy are you?” test out of a desire to see whether I belong. Because once I did so, you see, I could congratulate myself and embrace my brothers… imagine my disappointment when I realised that the test was not even passable by an actual dandy! Ah well, c’est la vie.

  14. M Says:

    I sometimes think dandyism a bit of a misnomer. It’s not an “-ism” in the same way as the other -isms you cite. I blame the French. Horseley is quite right when he says:

    “‘Dandyism’ completely fails as an idea. How can originality replicate to create a whole movement? How can you dress alike to assert your individuality? How, on the one perfumed hand, can you talk about freedom when you willingly give it up with the other ungloved mitt? How can you be unique and yet part of the gang?’

    The answer, though, is that dandyism can never been movement, such as communism or chappism. It must always be a set of qualitites intrinsic to the man or it fails.

  15. Ryan Oakley Says:

    Whatever these people may call themselves, I’m going to call them Brandys. First of all, they just seem like some sort of brand to me and secondly, it’s a bit of an homage to Stephenson’s Brandys in “Snow Crash.” An off the shelf avatar.

    “The other girl is a Brandy. Her date is a Clint. Brandy and Clint are both popular, off-the-shelf models. When white-trash high school girls are going on a date in the Metaverse, they invariably run down to the computer-games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy. The user can select three breast sizes: improbable, impossible, and ludicrous. Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips. When a brandy flutters her eyelashes, you can almost feel the breeze.”
    Snowcrash, page 35

  16. the new edwardian Says:

    I believe you can create a movement called “Dandyism” and in fact there has been a movement of a sort obviously since Brummell however, it isn’t the type of “ism” in which people are followers of, but rather an “ism” in which people may relate to others. Baudelaire and D’Aurevilly write of it in philosophic terms as do other and as a philosophy it steeps beyond mere movement, and speaks more on a personal level. To sum up, it isn’t a movement in the sense that people follow in this direction or that, but a movement which people simple find a common ground with perhaps other like minded people, but from which they express their own individuality or their own “dandyism.”

  17. Nick Willard Says:

    The Infected Provincial has gotten on the Horsley bandwagon.

    In the comments, he indirectly replies to M2’s brilliant skewering. I say “indirectly” because, as he has told us so many times, he doesn’t read, don’t you know.

    As he has for some time (after he realized that he was losing the war), he who once marketed himself as a dandy now dismisses dandyism as uninteresting. This “philosophical” geological shift mirrors his sartorial passage from leprechaun impersonator to one who dresses more conventionally but equally tastelessly. He still dresses with the subtlety of an elephant’s prick.

    Irony of ironies: he labels as “vulgar” anything that has “an element of predictable schtick.” Look in the mirror.

    He is a mote in the public eye.

  18. M Says:

    Of the two I’d give Horsley a trifle the preference. I mean, who would you rather have at a party, the fellow with all the ribald stories and a fist full of fun pills or the guy declaiming about moths and who thinks “Dandies identify strongly with plants?”

  19. Christian Says:

    That’s a very revealing thread on W’s blog. He seems to all but admit that he may be prone to spouting what in hindsight he realizes is nonsense, and comes up with a convenient excuse that he shouldn’t be held accountable for ideas expressed more than 90 days ago:

    “No contradiction at all, from my point of view. Besides, the idea of being fossilized by whatever one has written in the past does not appeal to anyone, least of all myself.”

  20. JES Says:

    Quote Nick Willard: “He still dresses with the subtlety of an elephant’s prick.” heeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!

    yeah, I’d rather party with with Horsely.

  21. M Says:

    “From the moment that art ceases to be the nourishment of the best brains, the artist can use all the tricks of the intellectual charlatan. The refined people, the rich ones and the professional layabouts, only want what is sensational or scandalous in modern art. And since the days of Cubism I have fed these boys what they wanted and pacified the critics with all the idiotic ideas that went through my head. Whilst I amused myself with all these pranks, I became famous and very rich. I am just a public clown, a fair- ground barker. It is painful for me to confess this, but in the end it pays to be honest.” — Pablo Picasso

  22. T. Gentry Says:

    Horsley = horseshit.

    If anything, a dandy is supposed to be an original of some sort.
    Horseshit constantly rips off others–usually Oscar Wilde, but in the title of his useless volume,
    Marc Bohan instead.

    Just a poseur getting away with it for a while.

  23. Bricology Says:

    T. Gentry wrote “If anything, a dandy is supposed to be an original of some sort.”

    Careful what you suggest, son — that would disqualify most people here.

  24. Ghion Says:

    How will history rate Horsley?

    Dandyism => Dandyesque

  25. Monty Says:

    Dears like it or not he was noticed and looked at with sideway glances as we passed unnoticed. We may not agree if he played a role, we still talk about Sebastian. We Will aspire. M

  26. sandy sottilare Says:

    Dandyism is simply a cultural art form centered upon the human frame and individualized through one’s theatrical proclivities.

  27. Derek Cottle Says:

    Evidently, dandyism is almost entirely meaningless. It has a definition within the pages of Sebastian Horsley’s book, but otherwise it apparently boils down to “I feel good about myself.”

    There’s nothing more tiresome than arguing over what is authentic and what is not. What resonates is what matters. You can’t know the ultimate intentions of almost all individuals you ever encounter. They may not even be aware themselves!

  28. Equivita Review Says:

    Equivita Review » Blog Archive » The Fake’s Progress

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