OW Holmes on Dandyism
From “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table”
By Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858
Dandies are not good for much, but they are good for something. They invent or keep in circulation those conversational blank checks or counters just spoken of, which intellectual capitalists may sometimes find it worth their while to borrow of them. They are useful, too, in keeping up the standard of dress, which, but for them, would deteriorate, and become, what some old fools would have it, a matter of convenience, and not of taste and art. Yes, I like dandies well enough — on one condition.
“What is that, Sir?” said the divinity-student.
That they have pluck. I find that lies at the bottom of all true dandyism. A little boy dressed up very fine, who puts his finger in his mouth and takes to crying, if other boys make fun of him, looks very silly. But if he turns red in the face and knotty in the fists, and makes an example of the biggest of his assailants, throwing off his fine Leghorn and his thickly-buttoned jacket, if necessary, to consummate the act of justice, his small toggery takes on the splendors of the crested helmet that frightened Astyanax. You remember that the Duke said his dandy officers were his best officers. The “Sunday blood,” the super-superb sartorial equestrian of our annual Fast-day, is not imposing or dangerous. But such fellows as Brummel and D’Orsay and Byron are not to be snubbed quite so easily. Look out for “la main de fer sous le gant de velours,” (which I printed in English the other day without quotation-marks, thinking whether and scarabæus criticus would add this to his globe and roll in glory with it into the newspapers, — which he didn’t do it, in the charming pleonasm of the London language, and therefore I claim the sole merit of exposing the same.) A good many powerful and dangerous people have had a decided dash of dandyism about them. There was Alcibiades, the “curled son of Clinias,” an accomplished young man, but what would be called a “swell” in these days. There was Aristoteles, a very distinguished writer, of whom you have heard, — a philosopher, in short, whom it took centuries to learn, centuries to unlearn, and is now going to take a generation or more to learn over again. Regular dandy, he was. So was Marcus Antonius; and though he lost his game, he played for big stakes, and it wasn’t his dandyism that spoiled his chance. Petrarca was not to be despised as a scholar or a poet, but he was one of the same sort. So was Sir Humphrey Davy; so was Lord Palmerston, formerly, if I am not forgetful. Yes, — a dandy is good for something as such; and dandies such as I was just speaking of have rocked this planet like a cradle, — aye, and left it swinging to this day. — Still, if I were you, I wouldn’t go to the tailor’s, on the strength of these remarks, and run up a long bill which will render pockets a superfluity in your next suit. Elegans “nascitur, non fit.” A man is born a dandy, as he is born a poet. There are heads that can’t wear hats; there are necks that can’t fit cravats; there are jaws that can’t fill out collars — (Willis touched this last point in one of his earlier ambrotypes, if I remember rightly); there are tournures nothing can humanize, and movements nothing can subdue to the gracious suavity or elegant languor or stately serenity which belong to different styles of dandyism.
We are forming an aristocracy, as you may observe, in this country, — not a gratiâ-Dei, nor a jure-divino one, — but a de-facto upper stratum of being, which floats over the turbid waves of common life like the iridescent film you may have seen spreading over the water about our wharves, — very splendid, though its origin may have been tar, tallow, train-oil, or other such unctuous commodities. I say, then, we are forming an aristocracy; and, transitory as its individual life often is, it maintains itself tolerably, as a whole. Of course, money is its corner-stone. But now observe this. Money kept for two or three generations transforms a race, — I don’t mean merely in manners and hereditary culture, but in blood and bone. Money buys air and sunshine, in which children grow up more kindly, of course, than in close, back streets; it buys country-places to give them happy and healthy summers, good nursing, good doctoring, and the best cuts of beef and mutton. When the spring-chickens come to market — I beg your pardon, — that is not what I was going to speak of. As the young females of each successive season come on, the finest specimens among them, other things being equal, are apt to attract those who can afford the expensive luxury of beauty. The physical character of the next generation rises in consequence. It is plain that certain families have in this way acquired an elevated type of face and figure, and that in a small circle of city-connections one may sometimes find models of both sexes which one of the rural counties would find it hard to match from all its townships put together. Because there is a good deal of running down, of degeneration and waste of life, among the richer classes, you must not overlook the equally obvious fact I have just spoken of, — which in one or two generations more will be, I think, much more patent than just now.
The weak point in our chryso-aristocracy is the same I have alluded to in connection with cheap dandyism. Its thorough manhood, its high-caste gallantry, are not so manifest as the plate-glass of its windows and the more or less legitimate heraldry of its coach-panels. It is very curious to observe of how small account military folks are held among our Northern people. Our young men must gild their spurs, but they need not win them. The equal division of property keeps the younger sons of rich people above the necessity of military service. Thus the army loses an element of refinement, and the moneyed upper class forgets what it is to count heroism among its virtues. Still I don’t believe in any aristocracy without pluck as its backbone. Ours may show it when the time comes, if it ever does come.