Every 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. A 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 Dandyism.net), 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.”
In 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, “the 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.”
With 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 wry 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.