The Diabolical Monocle


brummell.jpgBy Nick Willard

Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style
By Ian Kelly
Free Press

I was prepared to thoroughly dislike Ian Kelly’s biography of Beau Brummell. The attendant ballyhoo, here in the US and last year in the UK, has been lascivious and sensational — Brummell as “a Casanova and a playboy;” variously the “Boy Toy” and “Toy Boy” of the Duchess of Devonshire; taking lovers of both sexes; his grandfather a brothel keeper, and his mother a courtesan. It has also affected a vulgar contemporaneity. He was the “first celebrity;” “the first metrosexual,” and “the inventor of the suit” — odd, since he never wore one. In the unkindest cut, the subtitle, in crossing the Atlantic from Britain to America, was switched from “The Ultimate Dandy” (something of an oxymoron, as Brummell originated dandyism) to “The Ultimate Man of Style.”

My worst fears have been disappointed. Mr. Kelly’s account of Brummell’s life is well written, lively, informative, factual, balanced and innovative. It is, simply put, the best biography of Brummell. (more…)

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Man of Flowers

By Nick Willard

The Boutonniere: Style in One’s Lapel
By Richard Martin, et al.

“Reginald slid a carnation of the newest shade into the buttonhole of his latest lounge coat and surveyed the results with approval. ‘I am just in the mood,’ he observed, ‘to have my portrait painted by someone with an unmistakable future. So comforting to go down to posterity as ‘Youth with a Pink Carnation’ in catalogue-company with ‘Child with a Bunch of Primroses’ and all that crowd.” — Saki, The Innocence of Reginald

Last week I attended a cocktail party at Saks 5th Avenue to open “Dressing the Part,” NYU’s Eighth Fashion Conference. As I was to deliver a lecture at the conference on “Dandyism Then and Now,” as well as uphold the honor of, I felt an obligation to look my dandy best. (more…)

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Romp and Circumstance

casanova.jpgBy Nick Willard

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Despite doing his best work while wearing no clothes, Giacomo Casanova has been anointed a sort of patron saint of dandies. Stephen Robins, in his book “How To Be a Complete Dandy”, considers the 18th-century Venetian a dandy and invokes him as proof of the dandy’s virility. “Dandies and Don Juans,” an early 20th-century study of sportsman and adventurers by Alexander von Gleichen-Russwurm, prominently includes the adventurer and womanizer. Most importantly, our own definitive dandy genealogy chart identifies him as a precursor, albeit tangential, of the original dandy, Beau Brummell.

The chart lists Casanova as an example of the related dandy archetype of the “seductive rogue.” This archetype was linked with the dandy through the Cavaliers. Upon their return from France to the court of Charles II during the Restoration, they introduced French notions of men’s elegance into an England recovering from the Puritanism of the Puritans (who else?) and Cromwell. They also brought back a serious reputation as libertines; hence, the link between elegant attire and sexual escapades. The first serious work on dandyism, Barbey’s “Du Dandysme,” identified the Cavaliers as part of Brummell’s pedigree. The Cavaliers will soon be in the spotlight again. Next month, the long-delayed theatrical release of Johnny Depp’s “The Libertine,” based on the life of one such Cavalier, the bisexual and scatological 17th-century English poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, arrives. (more…)

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Astaire Master

By Nick Willard

Fred Astaire Style
G. Bruce Boyer
Assouline Publishing

The dandy reveals himself by what he wears. His essence is external display. Photographs, therefore, inherently constitute a better medium to communicate the significance of the dandy than do words. Words, however artfully crafted, can only mediate, not exhibit, the effect of the dandy. Photographs, on the other hand, permit us to directly experience the dandy. This jewel box of a book is the very model of what a volume about the dandy should be.

Mr. Boyer has been, for well over two decades, the preeminent writer about men’s clothing. His erudition and taste show. His pithy and perceptive introductory essay deftly assesses Astaire’s sartorial significance in the annals of dandyism. Astaire is the American Dandy, a “classless aristocrat,” the populist exponent of natural elegance. The author then sagaciously steps aside and gives Mr. Astaire center stage: 60 pages of photographs, wisely chosen and many never-before-published, primarily showing Astaire in elegant mufti rather than in his movie costumes. Mr. Boyer unobtrusively annotates the photographs at the end of the book. (more…)

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Adventures in Beauty

By Michael Mattis
The Aesthetic Adventure
By William Gaunt
The New Aestheticism
By John J. Joughin and Simon Malpa

There is no excitement quite like that of unwrapping books you have just gotten in the mail. Pretensions to maturity and sophistication fly out the window as you manically tear the packaging apart like an eight-year-old opening a long sought-after birthday present, pausing only to wonder, “Must they always wrap these things in reinforced steel and concrete?”

So it was when two books recently arrived from online bookseller Alibris. One of these, “The Aesthetic Adventure” by William Gaunt, was not new to me. I had owned a paperback copy of it before. It was one of those seminal books in my development as a student of aesthetics and as a dandy, holding an honored place alongside Holbrook Jackson’s “The Eighteen Nineties,” Ellen Moer’s “The Dandy,” and Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde.” But that copy fell apart some years back and I discarded it. Reminded of “The Aesthetic Adventure” a few weeks ago by a conversational thread in another online community, I determined to find another copy.

While perusing the Alibris website for “The Aesthetic Adventure,” I also came across a second book, the title of which fired my interest. “The New Aestheticism” is edited by a pair of English profs, John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas, and the books’s jacket-flap pap seemed promising:

“The rise of literary theory spawned the rise of anti-aestheticism, so that even for cultural theorists, discussions concerning aesthetics were often carried out in a critical shorthand that failed to engage with the particularity of the work of art… This book introduces the notion of a new aestheticism… focusing on the specifically aesthetic impact of a work of art or literature has the potential to open radically different ways of thinking about identity, politics and culture.”

What this seemed to say to me at the time was that a few radically level-headed, if not “radically different,” scholars had found the courage the toss the theoretical baby out with the Lacanian bath water, take a stand and dare to say what’s good and what’s bad in a work of art on its own merits. I imagined a book full of eloquent essays by latter-day Walter Paters writing in hard, gemlike and readable prose. In addition, the book’s price led me to think that it might also offer a number of illustrations, perhaps even color plates, providing examples of new-found, contemporary expressions of skillfully crafted beauty. Silly me.

But I get ahead of the story. It happened that I opened Gaunt’s “The Aesthetic Adventure” first. This cloth-bound hardback edition, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1945, wore its original jacket, featuring Max Beerbohm’s caricatures of James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Carlyle, along with the legend, “A witty and highly entertaining history of the Bohemian movement in art and writing.” I don’t remember if my paperback version included the same words, but they describe “The Aesthetic Adventure” perfectly.

“The Aesthetic Adventure” is a cultural history of aestheticism, that movement so tightly summed up in the Theophile Gautier’s now timeless phrase, l’art pour l’art. Gaunt takes us through the aesthetic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as if we were there, looking over Whistler’s shoulder. Its 262 pages deftly weave art, literary, philosophical and cultural history together with the lives of the artists, writers, thinkers, patrons and characters who made the aesthetic movement so wonderfully engaging and so deeply flawed: Matthew Arnold, Roger Fry, Max Beerbohm and his bother, Herbert, Audrey Beardsley, Edward Burne-Jones, Earnest Dowson (now remembered mostly for his quip, “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder”), Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, James McNiell Whislter, George Moore and a host of others. The book takes us up to the time when Europe’s aesthetic illusions were shattered by the shells of the First World War.

In Gaunt’s able hands the era comes alive. Reading “The Aesthetic Adventure,” it’s easy to get caught up in the bohemian players’ enthusiasm, to picture their late nights drinking at the Café Royal or trading barbs at the Rhymer’s Club, where, Gaunt writes, “wit sparkled, enmity smiled, the poor were entranced by splendor and the rich by talent.”

Gaunt continues: “Sometimes Dowson came here [to the Rhymer’s Club] surfeited from the streets, finding it neutral ground between the society he disliked and the netherworld to which he was so irresistibly drawn, discovering there the typical balance of the time between pleasure and ruin.”

“Surfeited from the streets… The typical balance of time between pleasure and ruin.” I don’t know if I have ever read a more eloquent passage about the destructive fascination that low life holds. The book is full of such clear-eyed, thoughtful passages. Gaunt’s really is the quintessential history of the “art for art’s sake” movement, the way Ellen Moer’s “The Dandy” is the quintessential history of dandyism.

When I finally got around to cracking “The New Aestheticism,” I was excited to read what this new movement might hail. Though the book turned about to be a plain paperback with fine print and no illustrations, I dove in. I was soon left wondering however, exactly what planet these new aesthetes lived on.

Given the current state of academia, it’s not surprising that no one has come up with a phrase to describe Joughin and Malpas’s new aestheticism as neatly as Gaunt’s old aestheticism was summed up with Gautier’s “art for art’s sake.” And, unfortunately, Joughin and Malpas themselves can’t really be bothered to try, but instead fall back on the obfuscatory, pomo lit-babble common in today’s humanities to explain away any claim this new aestheticism of theirs might have on uncovering the beautiful.

Their opening gambit is ladled with weak sauce: “The very notion of the ‘aesthetic’ could be said to have fallen victim to the success of recent developments within literary theory.” Really? Could it indeed be said to have? Or has it? And what’s with the scare-quotes around “aesthetic?” You would think these two august professors might have been slinking around the academy long enough to know what that word means.

When our two intrepid profs do get around to defining their terms we get: “Maybe the best response” – left-wing professors always respond, everyone else reacts – “is to say that aesthetics is the theoretical discourse which attempts to comprehend the literary.” Forget about beauty, in other words, aesthetics is a technical shorthand, like Newtonian notation is to calculus, for describing a text – and everything, to these people, is a text – one that needs to be employed if we are to understand it. Funny, I always thought the best way to understand a text was by “reading” it. And hadn’t they promised to avoid “critical shorthand?”

I read on and found this little gem: “Perhaps the most basic tenet we are trying to argue for is the equiprimordiality of the aesthetic – that, although it is without doubt tied up with the political, historical, ideological, etc., thinking it as other than determined by them, and therefore reducible to them, opens space for an artistic and literary specificity that can radically transform its critical potential and position with regard to contemporary culture.”

I’m not sure who this “them” is, but the poor bastards certainly have my sympathy, trapped as they are in a pool of equiprimordial quicksand. Blech.

Still, I was only in the introduction and had some hope for the essays tucked within. I flipped through to Jonathon Dollimore’s “Art in a time of war: towards a contemporary aesthetic.” It began promisingly enough, with a brief exploration of the universality in Hermann Hesse’s writings. I’m not a fan of Hesse – too damned serious for me – but his sentiments are noble and clearly put. The essay quickly dips, however, into stereotypical attacks on globalization and popular culture, exemplified by “Hollywood and McDonald’s rather than Shakespeare and Harrods.” Dollimore goes on to attempt to show that there are no universals in literature and that Enlightenment humanism’s pretty much shuffled off this mortal coil, because, you know, it’s all relative.

That pretty much wraps it up for the new aestheticism. There’s no truth and no beauty in the world, just a bunch of dissembling dialectics trying to describe the indescribable. So what’s the point, you ask? Who knows? You would think these people would get bored with writing the same paper with the same conclusion over and over again, but the stream of drivel seems endless. If the flaw in the old aestheticism was in its practitioners’ attempt to create a beauty far removed form the world around them, the flaw in the new aestheticism is in it adherents’ refusal to see any beauty in the world at all not tainted by politics or economics.

Some may find the clarity, conciseness and elegance of phrase that marks good writing like that of William Gaunt reactionary. I think, in academia at least, these qualities have been buried so long – 40 years or more – that to bring them back would be nothing short of revolutionary. And should such a revolution find a clean-shaven Che Guevara to lead it, the excitement of getting books in the mail may end in disillusionment less often.

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But Knot For Me

By Nick Willard

The 85 Ways To Tie a Tie
Thomas Fink and Yong Mao
Broadway Books

The decadent dandy has as his guidebook “Against Nature,” the “poisonous” yellow book redolent of incense that Lord Henry gives to Dorian, the catalyst for Wilde’s young hero’s descent into Avernus.

So do fundamentalist dandies, those devotees of Brummell – possessors of a languid wit, connoisseurs of a fine cut (both sartorial and social), practitioners of “country washing,” and aficionados of elegant neckwear – have a similarly inspirational guide?

Surprisingly, the answer may lie not among the informative books listed on this site’s Texts page, but in a little book dedicated to the Brummellian task of tying one’s tie properly. And it comes from the unlikeliest of authors: two condensed-matter physicists at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, Thomas Fink and Yong Mao. The physicists applied topology (a branch of geometry), Knot Theory and physics to certain assumed practical constraints (e.g. length of tie, size of knot), and determined that there are exactly 85 ways to tie a tie.

Fink and Mao expanded their initial research into a jeu d’esprit entitled “The 85 Ways To Tie a Tie.” The book includes a history of neckcloths; sprinkles throughout photographs of the famous sporting various knots (the last photo, in context, is particularly clever and witty); briefly summarizes the relationship among topology, Knot Theory, physics and tying tie knots; and relegates to the appendix the mathematical proof.

The glory of the book is in its instructions. Attractive diagrams and the authors’ own simple and especially devised notation detail the sequence of moves for tying each of the 85 knots move-by-move. These directions are the clearest and most precise ever written. Twenty-five knots are accorded short essays, a few only a sentence long.

A dandy must perfect nineteen of the knots. Applying topological principles, the authors deem thirteen of the knots “aesthetic,” a designation without practical significance. The others are either indistinguishable iterations or simply too awful to sport. The knots run the gamut from casual to relaxed, formal to intricate. They range in size from three moves to nine. The shapes vary from a tapered, tunneled look to the triangular and bulbous. A number of knots begin with the tie inside-out around the neck – these are certainly the knots your father did not teach you. A delightful singularity is a variation of what the authors have dubbed “The Christensen,” which results in a cruciform design. It is very formal, intricate and elegant, and I chose this knot to go with my morning attire for my daughter’s wedding.

Dandies can be passionate about their knot preferences, but what is the best knot is intensely personal. There are four general considerations: It must harmonize with one’s face, the tie itself, the shirt collar, and the rest of one’s attire. In other words, the shape of the knot must accent good facial features and/or offset weak ones; the tie’s thickness, width, length and in some cases shape must be consistent with the knot; the knot must be proportionate to the length and spread of the shirt collar points (which in turn must flatter one’s face); and the formality or informality of the knot must match the rest of one’s attire. Learn the knots, experiment, and use one’s eye and educated sense of elegance to select, on any given occasion, one’s choice.

Brummell spent upwards of two hours each day arranging his cravat. He never left his digs until his cravat was perfect. A contemporary dandy should be content with no less. To paraphrase the creator of Dorian Gray – and Lord Henry – a well-tied tie is the first serious step in dandyism.

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