Bear in mind that “Dandy” as used in the modern sense is but a catch-phrase to describe men taking particular care of their appearance. It has absolutely no literary and little philosophical relevance.
Even as a historical term, it lumps together people who had nothing to do with each other (which is true of many labels such as ‘romanticism’, ‘realism’, etc.). Individualists as they are, none of those persons would accept to be put in the same category— ‘I refuse to be part of any club that would have someone like me for a member’ said a Marxist dandy. Still the term does refer to a certain social attitude. It does not do justice to the works of Baudelaire or Wilde, of course. Brummel might be the only true dandy as he did not write anything.
‘Dandy’ is a used-up word and the point of the article is to curb its use as a pseudo-literary reference as it does not apply to our times.
You’re wearing fine shoes with an impeccable shine, a perfectly knotted tie, a shirt with a soft pattern, a well-cut suit—maybe even a double-breasted–adorned with the adequate pocket square. And here’s what people tell you: “What a dandy you are!”
You may not have been carrying a silver-pommeled walking stick, wearing spats, white gloves and an ascot, or displaying a precious stone as big as the Ritz for a tie tack. You may even have eschewed the fedora and spectacular overcoat but still, dandy they call you.
We have all heard those remarks filled with an admiration bordering on reproach, that equate sartorial care with dandyism. Such confusion is always difficult to explain and unravel as it is peculiar to our times, stemming as it does from a loss of memory, a loss of historical and social references. The suit and tie, the hat and leather shoes were once, not so long ago, the mainstream outfit and they are now often considered to be a dandified attire (a major mistake, in my opinion, about what it means to dress well).
What is dandyism?
Writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly once described Brummel in his seminal book about him: “He used to stand for a few minutes at the door of the ballroom, glance round, criticize it in a sentence, and disappear, applying the famous maxim of Dandyism : — ‘In society, stop until you have made your impression, then go. He knew his own overpowering prestige, and that with him to remain was unnecessary.” (1845, Of dandysism and of George Brummel).
The dandy is not just someone who dresses well, or better than others, he is a social figure who with ‘the insolence of disinterestedness’ (« l’insolence du désintéressement »), seeks to ‘create surprise as he remains stolid’. Impertinence, haughtiness, arrogance… The dandy tries and develop with irony what would otherwise be considered faults, so as to turn them into the tools of his own glory. As Barbey d’Aurevilly said about Brummel, his work of art ‘was his own life’. Which poet Charles Baudelaire expressed emphatically, ‘A Dandy should seek to be sublime without interruption; he should live and sleep in front of a mirror’ (Mon cœur mis à nu).
The dandy experiments with misaligned behaviours. He wants to shine and be noticed by the way he runs against the flow. The dandy’s breezy and carefree attitude is based on his social prominence and loftiness — there is no dandyism without the arena of the high-life and one cannot be a dandy without an audience.
Dandyism is gone
Dandyism was a special moment in history whose figures were mostly icons of literature, painting and the 19th century high-life. What could be left of Brummel, Byron, Oscar Wilde, Robert de Montesquiou, the Count of Orsay and other lesser figures?
Honoré de Balzac, in his Treatise on Elegant Living (1830, Traité de la vie élégante) sees sartorial distinction as an attempt to differentiate oneself in a world that is increasingly based not on equality in fact, but equality in ideology since the demise of the three orders that had been abolished by the French Revolution. Basically, the dandy was attempting to build his own aristocratic world.
Balzac considers fashion, good-breeding, and luxury as the expression, within a democratic mutation, of a deep need of the human soul:
“Even those princes of intellect, power and economy, that modern and vast cast, will feel an urge to show off the extent of their power, like the ancient aristocrats. Still today the man in our society will strive for distinction. This urge is probably enshrined in human nature, it is a sort of primeval thirst — even savages show off their feathers, tattoos, special bows and seashells and will fight for glass jewellery.”
Since, according to him, we have exchanged “a laughable and decaying feudality” for “the triple aristocracy of money, power and talent”, this “equalitarian political lie” will see “the idle governing the others”. Such is the dandy figure, a man busy with idleness, busy with his own appearance as signs of his distinctive value and as tools of his dominance.
By contrast, whereas snobbishness is an attempt at self-promotion serving to show that one belongs to an elite social class, dandyism takes that belonging for granted and scorns the codes of his own world. The snob follows where the dandy dares (“Le dandy est un oseur” as Barbey d’Aurevilly puts it).
The historical moment when the dandy emerged was at the turning point when fading aristocratic prestige faced the rise of the bourgeoisie. The dandy was a figure of flamboyant idleness, a sort of infamous social model. Today dandyism could be a sham, a way of aping the behaviours and values of a past era.
If you accept the aforementioned premises, Pitti Peacocks are not dandies at all. Dandyism carried with it a form of social criticism and placed itself askew, out of the mainstream set of values. Trying to show off for commercial or narcissistic reasons is a far cry from the iconoclast spontaneity of the original dandy. Acting like a dandy is the very negation of dandyism. Philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch subtly made a difference between “the adventurous who has adventure in his blood and the adventurer for whom adventure is a job. The adventurer being only a bourgeois scamming on the margins of the bourgeois game” (L’aventure, l’ennui, le sérieux, 1963).
Contemporary gentlemen are not dandies. Trying to be well-dressed and to find distinction through the paradox of unaffected balance has more to do with refinement than with dandyism.
Elegance is the opposite of dandyism. Elegance is about harmony rather than shock; proportion rather than discordance, which does not have to preclude originality, personality or creativity, which are parts of the purpose of elegance (i.e., trying to develop a personal style without basing the style on flashiness).
Our post-modernist times have decided by ideological decree that convention is bad. Now anything goes and there are no limitations to what you can wear. So if you want to shock, count on the most radical wildness, which is not limited to crazy mixtures, an evening dress with a sirloin steak motif, a pink hat with a tux and sneakers, a tartan cape and a Santa Claus beard. Less than that and you may be too low-key and pathetically muted, with your banal three-piece suit, fedora and small bracelets. Not nearly dandified enough. But such flashiness, as practised by a small batch of music and TV stars and slavishly mimicked by fans has become its own cliché-ridden caricature, a conformist stance displayed by small herds.
Dandyism and elegance do have something in common though. They both share the same distrust for conformist codes and the same hankering after making a personal statement. Such approaches are a far cry from the frantic quest for orthodoxy that many clothes aficionados have embarked on, and who desperately want to assert their singularity at the same time as they find themselves lost without sartorial norms to adhere to — which is exactly why they so feverishly seek any prescription they think a sartorial guru or ‘influencer’ will provide–or look to rules that were valid a century or two ago within a social order which has disappeared for a long time.