The first new survey book on dandyism to come out in several years has recently appeared on these occidental shores. It’s Nigel Rodgers’ “The Dandy: Peacock or Enigma” and, so far as we’ve read of it, it’s one of the best titles released on the subject. We recently sat down with Rodgers—virtually, at least—to ask a few questions. Look for a full review of to book in these pixilated pages anon.
Michael Mattis: When and where were you first hear the word “dandyism?” How did you react to it?
Nigel Rodgers: I first read T. J. Burnett’s book on Scrope Davies nearly 30 years ago—I reviewed it for a provincial magazine—which led me to read [Ellen] Moers. Earlier, in the late 60s/early 70s, when I was in my teens. I had “a touch of the dandy about me” as Byron (disingenuously) put it. So I have long been interested in the subject.
MM: You’ve written about subjects at disparate as “Philosophers Behaving Badly,” the Roman Empire and ancient Greece. Why dandyism now? What’s the connection?
NR: As mentioned above, I have been thinking around the subject for a long time. The links between all these books are tenuous, although philosophy began with the Greeks and Alcibiades (antique Greek) was a proto-dandy figure. There is a connection between Existentialism—“Man is nothing but what he makes of himself!” said Jean-Paul Sartre in Exisentialism is a Humanism (1945)—and dandyism, though I scarcely mention it in the book.
MM: You acknowledge your debt to Ellen Moers, author of the quintessential history, “The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm,” as we all must. How does “The Dandy: Peacock or Enigma” complement the work of dandiacal scholars like Moers, James Laver, Martin Green, et al?
NR: Moers, who wrote over 50 years ago, focused on just one century (1800-1900) in two countries, England and France. I have looked back to ancient Greece and Rome and forward through the 20th century, at the U.S., Russia and Germany and finally the Congo, and end in the present century. This results in a book of far wider scope though one less scholarly and intensive. Laver is an acknowledged authority on dress but his book on dandyism is slim, though very good. Green’s “Children of the Sun” is a splendid book but does not examine dandyism per se in much depth. My book is an attempt to unite such often disparate threads and survey the whole phenomenon in a wider context.
MM: In describing Brummell’s coeval Scrope Davies you note that he was “true to the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance courtesy, wit.” Those are surely still valid today, but they must naturally manifest themselves differently in the 21st century than they did in the early 19th. Describe your perfect dandy of today.
NR: Nick Foulkes could an obvious choice in Britain today. There may well be other even better dandies today who are almost unknown. Dandyism does not really thrive in the limelight of celebrity worship. Brummell was not really a “celeb”—he could have walked round most of London unrecognized even in his prime. Nor was Baudelaire. Wilde was a “celeb” in the modern sense, but he made a far from perfect dandy, partly because of that.
MM: The book’s subtitle asks the question, “peacock or enigma?” What’s the answer?
NR: Both peacock and enigma simultaneously at times—but seldom just a peacock. The true dandy remains a paradox.