“These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking …. Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.”
Charles Baudelaire’s clear wording describes a generation and a lifestyle he himself belonged to and thrived in and that went through several different stages – Baudelaire’s being a later one, described as the metaphysical. While Dandyism began as early as 1790s, its first great pioneer was George Bryan Brummell, more commonly known as Lord Beau Brummell, a nickname acquired in his youth.
During the Regency period in England, Beau Brummell broke the aesthetic standards briefly introduced by the staggeringly flashy self-entitled “macaronis” by defending the now-popular rule that “less is more”. His style of dress was groundbreaking for his time in its simplicity, consisting of only black, navy blue, white and its slight variations – like shades of grey and beige. He was known to be always perfectly fitted and demanded his linen to always be clean and freshly laundered. But it wasn’t only his shockingly simple elegance that marked Lord Beau Brummell as a pioneer and made him so well-known – it was the simple fact that he was, indeed, known. In Brummell’s time, popularity stemmed from aristocratic bloodlines only, and the officially titled “Leader of Fashion” (as says the plaque attached to his former home in London) came from nothing more than a middle-class family. Lord Brummell thus introduced into the world the concept of “celebrity” – someone who is famous simply by being famous. In fact, Brummell was against commissioning portraits of himself, saying no still image could ever come close to the grandeur of his real presence as a person.
It wasn’t just clothes, however, that made the Dandy; while Brummell was famous for his style, he was also famous for his clever and cutthroat wit, a characteristic that became a pattern in those who described themselves – or were described – by the infamous word. One of the most renowned of these men, probably even the most, was Oscar Wilde himself, whose remarkably witty humour mixed with criticism has still to find a proper match. In fact while “dandy” began as a term to describe an overly-dressed gentleman, it soon evolved to evoke an entire set of style, character and behavioural rules, even when it came to conversation. The true dandy was not a person but a personae, a character whom gossip and scandal must center around, while his own personality should be one of indifference and nonchalance, of dry criticism without fervent action. “The perfect gentleman” or “the autonomous aristocrat” that, ironically, required an audience, and whose slightly dark, minimalistic and sophisticated style of dress stood out amongst the myriad of colours and prints. Their raison d’être was their own self and they distinguished themselves by taking no stands. A living contradiction, perhaps.
Dandyism, in its extreme, is represented in the literary world by many characters, namely in several works by Oscar Wilde (Lord Henry Wotton and his crowd in The Portrait of Dorian Gray as well as both Algernon and Ernest in The Importance of Being Earnest), the some of the cast of Eça de Queiroz’s Os Maias (namely João da Ega as being the most obvious example) and Honorè de Balzac’s Henri de Marsay in La Fille Aux Yeux D’Or. While The Portrait of Dorian Gray is, sadly, a mirror of Wilde’s own tragic life, it is also a gruesome depiction of the society in the late 1800s, with Lord Henry Wotton serving as a grim and overly honest commentator on society and the nature of man, speaking in written words what would be the silent thoughts of many, defending at times that the only opinion to have is no opinion at all. But while nonchalance and the cult of celebrity seemed to go hand in hand, this did not, however, define the dandy as a vapid or uncultured creature.
Dilettantism was something that affected many young men in British society; the will to dabble and dip into various subjects but never actually take anything seriously was a characteristic common to young aristocrats that, while doing nothing truly worthwhile, made a name for themselves by dressing stylishly, expertly socializing and, most of all, spending. The dandy did not come from aristocracy though, as mentioned before along with Lord Brummell’s name, and it was his ability to follow the same behavioural patterns as the young aristocrats that made him stand out.
The dandy came from middle-class but dressed like an aristocrat – Brummell preferred dark blue while Wilde was known to like green frocks and there were style staples like the white cravat, the famous monocle, the ever-present gloves and the perfect walking stick that provided the dandy with its full allure. The style relied on the quality of the material and how well-kept it was, not how much it visually stood out. But the minimalism in their finesse was a criticism, not a reference, to the superficial aristocracy, as the true dandy was intelligent, knowledgeable, witty and cultured and, clearly, against the frivolity of the favoured aristocracy.
It evolved from Lord Brummell in the late 1700s into the early 1900s, spawning names like Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley (illustrator who collaborated with Wilde himself), Lord Byron, the Count d’Orsay, Charles Baudelaire, James Whistler, amongst others. The dandy of the belle époque was, without a question, the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, while the most recent incarnation of the word has to be Andy Warhol, who reinitiated the entire discourse of the “cult of the Self”. Despite its history as a lifestyle and a defense of intelligence allied to indifference, however, Dandyism still holds its highest connotations in the field of fashion, being used as a common adjective in this field. The best example of modern dandyism – or, in official terms, neo-dandyism, would be the Prada menswear collection for the Fall/Winter season of 2012.
The signs of style were all there. Clean cuts, long frocks, stiff white collars or, alternatively, silk cravats. Narrow, elegant silhouettes in black and white with the starch added contrast of red for a modern twist, a geometric print here and there for a touch of youth, the youth Oscar Wilde so praised and adored. Like Lord Brummell’s everyday dressing rituals, the whole collection seemed planned down to the finest detail, like the trim of a coat or a pair of trousers ending exactly at the right point of the ankle. The monocle was taken as an inspiration for the colorful and perfectly-round sunglasses worn by actor Adrien Brody, who also donned the scarlet coat.
Prada did not reinvent the dandy as much as adapt it to the 21st century. Black and white reigned supreme, necks hidden and made longer by white silk, coats following the narrow shape of the male body in firm fabric intricately constructed to seem perfectly straight from shoulders to knee without ever breaking a line with a crease. Like the original dandy, even the gloves and small pops of colour were there, but perhaps the most notable achievement in aligning the 18th century with the 21st were the models used on the runway – well-known actors like Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tim Roth, Jamie Bell, Emile Hirsch and Garrett Hedlund. Because what else can we say has the same importance as it did then other than the notion of “celebrity”?
The Dandy was a quiet revolution in the shape of a man; beauty for the sake of beauty while reveling in criticism, dry wit and the knowledge of the simple fact that they were who they were. Celebrities that intelligently fostered their own fame, negative or positive; we might not have Lord Brummell, but there is still a whiff of dandyism in the air, and maybe even enough for a full revival one day.