It’s one of those questions that occasionally gets academics, students of culture, and cocktail-party conversationalists in a lather. Indeed, merely asking the question can be enough to get you into hot water. Regardless what side you happen to lean toward, you’re likely find an index finger stabbed in your direction and palm slapped loudly against your Louis Quinze table. In all likelihood you will be pilloried as either a stuffy reactionary or fashionably intellectual provocateur.
The question, of course, is whether a woman can be a dandy.
Feminist intellectuals latch onto the dandy, citing what they see as his show-biz quality in order to substantiate their pet theses about the nature of gender — mainly that it is a social construct, an unending performance that has little to do with the performer’s genetic heritage, biological make-up, or the shape of his or her wedding tackle. As evidence, they cite long lists of “female dandies,” women who prefer trousers to skirts and bow ties to bustles — George Sand to Romaine Brooks — to illustrate their points about “transgression” and all that claptrap.
This naturally meets with some derision from strict dandiacal constructivists. “Bah!” they exclaim. “That’s not dandyism; that’s drag!”
About this time the finger-pointing and table-slapping starts, and the next thing you know you find yourself taking sides over less theoretical issues, such as women’s membership at Augusta National Golf Club and executive pay parity. It only goes downhill from there.
So I have good reason for doing what I am about to do, which is avoid this argument as if it were a colony of badly tailored lepers. I live a comfortable and quiet life married to a beautiful young woman who loves me, and I will be damned if I’m going to spoil it now by getting into an argument over just who wears the dandy pants in the family. In fact, I would not touch that valise full of rattlesnakes with a ten-foot cigarette holder.
What I am going to do instead is tell the story of a remarkable woman, one who has been called a “dandy” by some very important persons, including Quentin Crisp.
Perhaps the only thing that can be certain about the Marchesa Luisa Casati, 48 years after her death in 1957, is that she was the most flamboyant and dramatic character to flit through the early 20th century European beau monde. They simply don’t make her kind anymore: richer than God, gloriously semi-sane, with outrageous taste in friends, art, décor, clothes, houses, pets and lovers. Guests of Casati’s boudoir were a veritable who’s who of the aristos, aesthetes, artists, bons vivants, poets, dancers and dandies that made the early 20th century’s art scene what it was: totally, utterly, and delightfully mad.
In fact, Casati made Peggy Guggenheim look like an ariviste Midwestern hausfrau by comparison. No doubt Casati served as the inspiration for the crazy aunt archetype later celebrated in books such as Partick Dennis’s “Auntie Mame.”