Nineteen-thirteen was the year the tango conquered fashionable society, rising from its seedy origins in the brothels of Buenos Aires. On assignment for The Rake, D.net founder Christian Chensvold meditates on this most masculine of social dances. Click here for a PDF of the story.
Selected Writings by Christian Chensvold
Halfway through dressing for last night’s New York book-signing party for Callahan & Adams’ “I Am Dandy,” it occurred to me that the evening would present a rare congregation of people with the word “dandy” on their minds.
So when I arrived to the sound of Dandy Wellington & His Band serenading the packed crowd, I took out my notebook and began chronicling guest responses to the following question:
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “dandy”?
The results were rather fascinating.
A few respondents immediately thought of individuals (none of them Brummell). Others thought of qualities they association with a dandy, making it clear that the legacy of “dandy,” in both word and concept, is that of the butterfly variety, clad in a kind of snazzy anachronism. Others still chose specific items of clothing they felt symbolically represented the word. Hardly anyone responded with a personality trait or an abstract concept, showing that in the minds of most “dandy” is something visible and sartorial.
Most of the responses are anonymous, though a few are credited to sitters in the book, many of whom were in attendance.
Finally, while I have not invented responses, I have taken the liberty of organizing them into small clusters for your entertainment. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
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If John Bull turns to look at you… you may be smoking his pipe tobacco (which, like John Bull himself, is unfortunately rather bland.)
Through clouds of a pipeful of John Bull, I recently found myself pondering one of Brummell’s most famous quips. Namely, that if the average man on the street turns to look at you, “you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”
And sure enough in yesterday’s “Who’s The Dandy?” showdown, a reader used the quote as rhetorical ammunition against one of the more flamboyantly dressed candidates.
So does Brummell’s quip, uttered two centuries ago, offer timeless insight into what it means to be well dressed? Or is it hopelessly dated and irrelevant, sprung from and time and place that has nothing to do with dressing well in the modern world?
Context is not only key to Brummell’s original utterance, but to its application, if any, for today. If you are dressed with distinction in mediocre surroundings, John Bull will surely notice you. Therefore of primary importance is determining exactly what boulevard you’re strolling down when John Bull does or does not turn to observe your attire. And since today bland and casual dress reigns in even the most distinguished quarters, one can find oneself conspicuously attired just about anywhere. The concept of being well dressed but somehow going unnoticed for it, therefore, is very difficult to qualify.
But perhaps another quote will help us to understand the nuances of how one can be simultaneously dressed well and yet dressed unremarkably. “Right Dress,” a 1955 book by syndicated menswear columnist Bert Bacharach, includes the following passage about master of sartorial understatement Cary Grant:
Someone once gave me a very fine description of Cary Grant’s attire at a time when the motion-picture star was considered the best dressed man in this country: “I’ve been with Cary Grant a dozen times lately, and when I leave him I have the recollection that he was beautifully dressed. But, for the life of me, I can never remember a single thing he was wearing — his hat, shirt, tie, suit, or anything else.” And that’s what all of us should try to achieve — the impression of being well dressed without wearing any one article that blatantly sticks in a person’s memory.
Being stared at on the boulevard for being “too stiff, too tight or too fashionable” is a sartorial sin for certain. But it’s possible John Bull noticed your quietly distinctive dress and made a subtle nod of approval.
And so it’s time, faithful myrmidons, to make your voice heard. What say ye of the Beau’s famous words? Are they timeless wisdom, totally irrelevant, or something in between?
Recently I’ve been doing some style stories for Billionaire.com, surely the most phallically obnoxious and nouveaux richest URL in the history of the Internet. It’s fun to drop casually at parties when someone asks who you’re writing for these days.
Although my audience is — supposedly — newly minted Chinese and Russian moguls, my editor (formerly of The Rake) lets me write as I wish. The assignments are pretty pleasant, too, including my latest, on Paul Stuart’s Phineas Cole collection.
The story opens thusly:
I recently stood with a group of menswear colleagues, including a couple of industry veterans, on the sidewalk of 45th Street near the corner of Madison Avenue. We were admiring the always dazzling window displays of Paul Stuart, the storied New York luxury house celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
As we peered at the mannequins bedecked in the Phineas Cole collection’s daring colors and patterns — like the bold and challenging harmonies of serious modern music — we wondered just who the customer was for these audacious duds, for which the term “dandyish panache” hardly does justice.
Get the full scoop by heading here. You’ll learn about one of the most special collections in men’s clothing today, in which everything is intended to be as dressy and elegant as possible, and get a 31-frame slideshow, a sampling of which is seen here. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD (more…)
Dandyism.net founder Christian Chensvold’s latest assignment for Ralph Lauren Magazine looks at two New York-area castles built by tycoons of the Gilded Age. Based in Tarrytown and Huntington, both have been converted into hotels and make for particularly interesting accommodations for one’s next visit to New York. (more…)
Lessons in Elegance: The words of wisdom contained within Honoré de Balzac’s “Treatise on Elegant Living” remain pertinent almost two centuries after their initial publication
By Christian Chensvold
The Rake, issue 10
Every era has its particular expression of elegance. But while that expression is forever in flux, the principles that govern it are fixed and eternal. So argues Honoré de Balzac in his “Treatise on Elegant Living,” a breezy philosophic tome written in 1830 recently given its first English translation by Wakefield Press, a small new publisher in Cambridge, Massachusetts devoted to rare and forgotten works of European literature.
The “Treatise on Elegant Living” brims with timeless aphorisms that transcend the ever-changing guise of fashion. Take, for example, the following evergreen gem: “Good has but one style; evil a thousand.” For Balzac, a few of the thousandfold manifestations of sartorial evil include any outfit that bears excessive ornamentation or a profusion of colors. Then there’s what in the fashion industry is called “working a look,” an act of folly whose sin is meretriciousness. “Anything that aims at an effect,” pronounces Balzac, “is in bad taste.”