Selected Writings by Christian Chensvold

Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living

Balzac’s “Treatise on Elegant Living” was recently given its first English translation by the newly founded Wakefield Press. I wrote this essay on it for the latest issue of The Rake.

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.”


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People Are Strange: Chensvold on Eccentrics

vogue-11.jpgLast month my editor at L’Uomo Vogue emailed me with the subject heading “Urgente!” She asked me to write the introductory essay for the upcoming issue, whose theme was “eccentricity.” She needed 800 words, and I could take any approach I wanted. The deadline was 24 hours.

I figured every Italian writer on their roster must have been on a six-week summer vacation if they were forced to resort to me at the last minute. Still, I felt honored.

Well the issue is out and my piece isn’t exactly the intro to the issue: Instead, they made in the back-page essay and slapped the word “Opinion” over it. Well, it certainly is.

But hey, there are 350 pages, and I’ve got the last word.

Below is the English original. It’s less musical than the Italian translation, but at least there are paragraph breaks.

Everyone/No One Is Eccentric
By Christian Chensvold

I once met a fashion writer who was dressed in red pants, pointed shoes and a kind of military jacket that looked straight from the cover of the Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But most noticeable about him was his waxed handlebar mustache.

He was about 25.

During our conversation, the young man repeatedly used the word “eccentric,” but not to describe someone who sleeps hanging upside down like a vampire bat because they find it more effective than Ambien, but to refer to certain acquaintances and their fashion sense, which was carefully calculated to look outlandish.

“Eccentric” is one of those words that in common usage has lost nearly all its denotative meaning. It has also shed its more quaint and rarified connotations. “He’s a bit of an eccentric,” used to suggest the person referred to was erudite and rich in addition to slightly odd. An innocent victim of our era of subjectivity and relativism, “eccentric” now means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, ceaselessly shifting based on context. And increasingly “eccentric” has come to mean just another lifestyle choice.

Decades of global democracy, mass media saturation and egalitarian ideologies have all contributed to the dilution of the concept of eccentricity, a moniker so charming when used to refer to an English aristocrat, yet so pathetic when applied to a suburban Californian trying to live out the fantasy that he’s a pirate.

The true definition of an eccentric, of course, is not just one who behaves oddly, but one for whom it would never occur to behave otherwise. In its purest form, eccentricity is wholly unconscious. But as soon as “eccentric” behavior becomes a kind of deliberate performance used for self-promotion and publicity, or for gaining attention, whether positive or negative, we are not dealing with genuine eccentricity, but something ersatz. Instead of being delightfully oblivious to his own oddities, the “eccentric” is a calculating showman seeking a reaction from his audience. If the true eccentric is a private individual who hides his idiosyncrasies, the ersatz eccentric is a public poser who flaunts them. (more…)

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Decline and Fall:’s Fifth Anniversary

swoon.jpgToday marks the five-year anniversary of

Usually our fiscal-year recap is penned by managing editor Nick Willard. He will not be addressing you this year because, like all great dandies, he has gone into exile. No one has heard from him for nearly nine months, and his phone just goes to voice mail.

We suspect he’s in debtor’s prison.

The timing could not be worse. At the same time Nick disappeared, I started up another web project, and have decided to focus my attentions there exclusively. A writer doesn’t spend his entire life on one book, nor a painter on one canvas. I need a new challenge, and what’s more, find that I’ve said all I have to say on the subject of dandyism at the present time. I may return to the topic when I have a fresh perspective.

I feel like I’m letting down the many faithful readers who’ve been with us from the start. But fear not: The forum is still open. And you will likely see an occasional new story now and then. But unless Willard resurfaces, it will never be like it used to be.

But they’ve been saying that about dandyism for 175 years.  — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

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Eye For Elegance

jd-lead.jpgSince’s beginnings, we’ve shamelessly raided the oeuvre of American artist J.C. Leyendecker to illustrate our posts. In the early days, before our scowling mascot was created, we used a Leyendecker image next to the site’s logo. Currently, we use Leyendeckers to illustrate the notorious “How Dandy Are You?” quiz, as well as the “Test of Dandy Knowledge.”

We’ve always seen in Leyendecker’s images a singular sartorial elegance, patrician demeanor, a certain frostiness, and a rock-solid masculinity. Naturally it took a gay man to create such images.

Now we can finally post Leyendecker images without shame, thanks to a nihil obstat from the publisher of the new book “J.C. Leyendecker,” by Laurence and Judy Cutler.

It all came about as a result of webmaster Christian Chensvold’s profile of the artist for the online magazine at Writes Chenners:

In 1905, Leyendecker created his most memorable legacy, leaping from the purely visual to the powerfully symbolic. In an age when detachable shirt collars were de rigeur, Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar Man—a mascot for the menswear company Cluett, Peabody & Co.—became what Cutler calls the first real advertising campaign and produced the first sex symbol of either gender.

In a campaign lasting twenty-five years, Leyendecker portrayed an archetypal American masculinity that was equal parts football hero and urbane man-about-town. Whether clutching a briar pipe or guiding a winsome debutante across the dance floor, the Arrow Collar Man embodied a vision of American manhood that was both rugged and refined—every woman’s dream. “At one point,” says Cutler, “Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar Man got more fan mail than Rudolph Valentino.”

Below are a few more images from the artist, all courtesy of Abrams Books, via American Illustration Gallery, NYC. (more…)

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Tradical Chic

md.jpgAstute readers likely noted the clothing Chenners wears in the photo spread in the recent L’Uomo Vogue story on Dandyland and thought, “What a ‘charmless, entitled jerk.'”

Or at least, “What a jerk.”

In the photo, the then-bearded founder is shown wearing a navy blazer (albeit double-vented with ticket pocket), navy and gold striped tie, and yellow poplin Go-To-Hell trousers (it was summer, after all).

Indeed, Chensvold has recently returned to his sartorial roots in classic Anglo-American style. So much so, that he has added another feather in his Stickpin Media cap with the founding of, a site devoted to the classic American menswear sometimes referred to as “trad.”

In other buttondowned news, Chensvold recounts the day Miles Davis walked into the Andover Shop and loaded up on natural-shouldered jackets and penny loafers for the online magazine at The article, called “Ivy League Jazz,” looks at that brief moment in time when the hip and square collided, and innovative jazz musicans dressed like IBM executives.

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Music For Choosing A Buttonhole

dbtuxpeakcopy8qn.jpg(Achtung: The music files in this post are NOT set to play automatically. If they do, please alter your browser preferences so that media files play only on command).

Recently a forum member posed the question “What sort of music does a dandy listen to?” While the unanimous answer was “Whatever the hell he likes,” in this post I’ll alter the question to “What sort of music is dandyish?” and offer a suggestion.

At headquarters, when performing particularly arduous editorial duties, there is one genre of music I turn to for inspiration: British Light Music. While some might call it elevator music, I prefer to think of it as grand staircase music.

British Light Music consists of light orchestral music for things like ballets, films and plays. The emphasis is on melody. It is largely a 20th-century invention and therefore has developed alongside — though completely aloof from — the total dismantling of tonality by composers of serious music.

Besides the virtues of effortless elegance and a certain mischievous quality, British Light Music is wholly scorned by serious musicologists since it’s based on pretty melodies. It therefore has the added appeal of being a musical pariah proudly flying the banner of beauty over the shelled trenches of atonality.

I find the music especially appealing in the morning, as I could never listen to something like a Shostakovich quartet before lunch. It is also especially pleasant to listen to in the evening while choosing a boutonniere for a night at the opera.

My own collection is small but cherished. The following are a few of my favorite tunes.

First up is “The Boulevardier” by Frederic Curzon. No lollygagging flaneur this fellow: Just listen to that brisk pace as he marches down the avenue to give his tailor an earful of the ol’ rancid:

[quicktime width=”320″ height=”60″][/quicktime] (more…)

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