Theory

What Am I? The Dandy Word-Association Poll

dandy-cover

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

* * *

“Eccentric”

“Fedora”

“Peacock”

“Flamboyance”

(more…)

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To Be Or Not To Be: Winston Chesterfield On The Dandy Label

winny

Winston Chesterfield, author of the blog Le Vrai Winston and contestant in one of our “Who’s The Dandy?” showdowns from five years ago, has penned some wise words at Men’s Flair apropos of Callahan & Adams’ “I Am Dandy.”

Winny writes:

When I learned that writer Natty Adams and photographer Rose Callahan’s impressive compendium of international dandies, in which I was included, was due to be called ‘I Am Dandy’, I was somewhat dismayed. If there is one thing that I dislike about modern dandyism it’s the idea that one could, or should, label oneself as a dandy. As a title, ‘I Am Dandy’ misrepresents most of the people in the book. Their medium of self-expression is artistic representation, not handing out business cards with the word ‘Dandy’ written in an opulent font.

In “I Am Dandy,” Chesterfield provides the following canny quote:

I never call myself a dandy, and nobody should. Using the word “dandy” is like using the word genius—you don’t want to use it too often.  It’s a little like a knighthood, and you can’t knight yourself.

Turns out Will of A Suitable Wardrobe may well have been ahead of the curve when he publicly declared he is not a dandy. Soon everyone featured in the book will be rushing to deny the title. Surely it’s practically destined to become the fashionable pose.

And if at one end of the spectrum is the denial of dandyhood, at the other is tattooing the word “dandy” on your body.

But there’s always a middle way. We think dandyism is best thought of as a personal code, an interior guiding principle rather than an exterior declaration. This is certainly how Baudelaire saw it. Likewise, the Duke of Dorset, hero of Beerbohm’s “Zuleika Dobson,” is conscious of his dandyhood — at least according to his narrator.

One can be devout without wearing a crucifix.

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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.”

(more…)

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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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Social Vs. Literary Dandyism

frontis01_full.jpgThe split between the dandyism of clothes and the dandyism of words is the subject of our most recent Library addition: “Social and Literary Dandyism,” published in Littell’s Living Age in 1880.

In its rambling way, Littell‘s unsigned article compares the purely social dandy — the Beau Brummells and Poodle Bings — with his literary counterpart.

“Dandies, like saints, are never much beloved of their fellow-creatures,” states the anonymous author. “Like saints, they have an ideal perfection in manner and dress, and ideals are felt to be impertinent. To be a dandy is to outrage the vanity of every one who has not the energy to be wakefully attentive to details of deportment and costume. The great dandies of old says, like Brummell, Lauzun, and the rest, were everywhere welcomed because they made themselves disagreeable to so many people.”

The author goes on to say, “A young man is never more certain of social success than at the moment when most other young men never mention him without saying that they ‘would like to kick him’.”

But as goes social life, so goes its literary counterpart. “Literary dandyism is also excessively annoying to the rugged hodmen of letters,” notes the author. “These industrious persons detest the literary dandy, the man who minds his periods and regards the cadence of his sentences, and shuns stock illustrations and old quotations, as the social dandy avoids dirty gloves and clumsy boots.”

The anonymous author names several men whom he considers literary dandies, including Balzac, Arnold, Pater, Walpole, Sydney, and even Machiavelli and Plato himself. Yet he was more prescient that he could ever have imagined. Just a few years after the publication of “Social and Literary Dandyism,” Oscar Wilde would burst onto the scene, first as an international lecturer on aestheticism and eventually as the author of some of the English language’s most elegant comedies of manners.

Many years later, a young journalist named Tom Wolfe — a man who donned his white suits, he said, for the express purpose that they pissed off “industrious persons” — would help reinvent literary non-fiction. Both were roundly kicked by the inelegant hearties of the prose world in their respective day. Yet both show that dandyism, whether personal, social or literary, involves clever balance of artifice and being true to oneself.

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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 Dandyism.net 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:

(more…)

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