Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Chap: Bohemians

In the latest issue of The Chap, I discuss bohemianism - the ultimate anti-dandyism. Below is a small excerpt.

As the great decadent siècle came to its fin, the influence of the dandies had waned. Oscar’s ignominious tumble down the ladder leading from stars back to gutter had soiled the archetypal aesthete’s velvet reputation – to be an elegant man was to be suspect, to be an elegant artist unconscionable. So it was that a new generation of poetry and paint-brush poseurs had to forge a new fashion which bespoke their anti-establishment attitudes. The green carnation in one’s lapel was old hat sartorial subversion – the new subversion required actual old hats, preferably big floppy ones of Continental provenance.
Into this tightly-laced world leapt the Bohemians with gypsy-inspired bravado. Their de facto suzerain, the painter Augustus John, led the way:
 But now a new kind of exhibitionism was born; in its way, as exact and conscientious as my father’s cult of the clothes-brush; a kind of inverted Dandysim. If my shoes were unpolished, they were specially made to my own design. If I abjured a collar, the black silk scarf that took its place was attached with an antique silver brooch which came from Greece. The velvet additions to my coat were no tailor’s but my own afterthought, nor were my gold earrings heirlooms, for I bought them myself: the hat I wore, of a quality that only age can impart…My abundant hair and virgin beard completed an ensemble which, if harmonious in itself, often failed to recommend me to strangers. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Whose Dandyism?

Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly, the first man to put on paper a critical analysis of dandyism as a cultural phenomenon opens one of the chapters of his work On Dandyism and George Brummell with the frank admission that "Dandysim is almost as difficult a thing to describe as it is to define." This difficulty, at once one of the most intriguing and frustrating things about studying dandyism, has persisted and animated the pens of writers as diverse and accomplished as Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, and W.H. Auden.

D'Aurevilly, as the title of his essay-cum-biography suggests, took Brummell as his main subject, holding him up as the prime example of a dandy and therefore the embodiment of dandyism as an idea realized. He was not wrong in doing this, although one trap D'Aurevilly never fell into was to assume the fallacy that because Beau Brummell was the ideal dandy all other dandies must therefore follow the style of Beau Brummell. This yawning logical gap neatly avoided by the thoughtful and observant Frenchman has all too often been leapt across (back and forth and back again without the least attempt at original thinking,) by those who would, 200 years after Brummell, declare that dandyism must follow the sartorial principles laid down by that prime mover. There could hardly be anything less dandyish (or more humorless,) than such undeviating idolatry, and one would hope that anyone as spirited and clever as the Beau would have little regard for those who would hold so fast and dearly to what was, at the time, a fiercely independent style.

"Dandyism" is not a synonym for Beau Brummell's personal sartorial philosophy or taste. He did not proselytize like some stylish messiah, telling people that he had developed a creed called dandyism and there was a proper way to practice, preach, and worship it. Dandy was a name other people gave to Brummell (as well as plenty of other men at the time whose individual style bore little resemblance to the Beau's elegance-through-simplicity,) and dandyism was a term that was used to refer to a considerably broader set of ideas than Brummell's own notions about the proper way to dress. Brummell is the exemplar of dandyism not because he was objectively the best dressed (although he may well have been,) or because his own personal style was the correct way to dress (although it may well have been,) but because he was the most radical in his style, the most original in his lifestyle and personality, and the most successful in its promotion.

Brummell's oft-quoted remark that "If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well dressed: but either too stifftoo tight, or too fashionable," is an excellent summation of his own professed sartorial philosophy (albeit clearly tongue-in-cheek if not a downright lie - Brummell quite obviously did want people to turn to look at him and this was exactly the kind of flippant remark he was fond of making without really meaning,) and it makes reference to one of the key elements of dandyism - that style is more important than fashion. But it is not a definition of dandyism by any means and it is certainly not a dogmatic rule that could stand up on its own 200 years later. If this alone were the definition of dandyism, applied today it would form a loop big enough to accommodate any man in a nicely-cut but determinately not-flashy suit - from James Bond to David Beckham. Not only that, but it would exclude many of the men who came after Brummell and who are now widely considered to be dandies: Count D'Orsay, Baudelaire, Count Montesquiou, Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Stephen Tennant, Cecil Beaton, Evander Berry Wall, Lucius Beebe, Bunny Roger, and Tom Wolfe. It seems to me that any definition which would exclude such men for their sometime-flamboyance isn't a definition worth having. 

It is true that Brummell's own style was notable for its restraint, simplicity, and anti-flamboyance. It may have been a style which favored subtlety, but this doesn't mean that it was, relatively speaking, a subtle style. It was, in fact, impressive, radical, and aggressive in its simplicity - a stunning reaction to the foppery of his time. Studying Brummell's life, there's every reason to suspect that if he had arrived at a time when the fashion was to dress in a subdued or restrained manner he would have pursued a bolder aesthetic in his own dress. 

Defining what dandyism is is a much greater task - one which I hope to achieve in my book. To be sure, dandyism is about dressing well and pursuing a life of elegance, wit, and originality. But one thing it certainly isn't is an unwavering allegiance to Brummell's (or Wilde's, or Loos', or Horsely's) personal ideas about clothing. Dandyism is a far too great subject to be reduced to one man's thoughts about dress. Rather, it is partly a way of thinking about dress - or, more specifically, the belief that dress is something which should be carefully thought about, with beauty, elegance, and originality as paramount considerations. And one should never forget that dress is only one criteria of dandyism and that a monkey in a suit - or David Beckham - will never truly be a dandy. 

Despite all my kvetching about arguments from two century-old authority I'll still let D'Aurevilly have the last word:

"Those who see things only from a narrow point of view have imagined [dandyism] to be especially the art of dress, a bold and felicitous dictatorship in the matter of clothes and exterior elegance. That it most certainly is, but much more besides. Dandyism is a complete theory of life and its material is not its only side. It is a way of existing, made up entirely of shades, as is always the case in very old and very civilized societies, where comedy becomes so rare, and the properties hardly have the better of boredom."    

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Book Covers of Louis Couperus

One of the most pleasant things about doing historical research is finding one's way down paths known only to locals. While taking a break from my research in London, I visited a friend of mine in Amsterdam for a week, expecting to find rather dandy-free diversions while there. The funny thing about obsessions is that they linger in the air around you, attracting their own kind. One night I ended up in an attic garret with a group of philosophy students from the local university, who were drinking wine, smoking hashish, and reciting poetry to one another. One young man, who was reciting some lines particularly violently, explained to me afterward that they were by Louis Couperus - a famous Dutch writer whose work is sadly overlooked outside his native country. Couperus was active during the belle époque, and was compared by many to Oscar Wilde, who was a fan of his. Several of his works are available in English translation at

But what I wanted to share are the beautiful book covers of some of his first editions, which are on Couperus' Wikipedia page. I hope my book looks this nice.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dandy Talk Success

Last friday I took part in a panel discussion on Dandysim at the National Arts Club. The panel was moderated by Emmy Award-winning designer David Zyla, and featured Rose Callahan of The Dandy Portraits, Matt Fox of the Fine and Dandy Shop, and manners expert Thomas P. Farley.

Rose has posted several photos on the Dandy Portraits blog.

The event was the most popular installment so far of the friday fashion discussions which Mr. Zyla has been organizing - the Club was overbooked with RSVPs and a waiting list nearly as long as the guest list itself. The audience, as can be seen in the event photos posted on The Dandy Portraits blog, was incredibly stylish.

Before the talk, Rose screened her excellent video about necktie designer extraordinaire Sean Crowley.

The talk itself was only forty minutes long, and there were four panelists, so we each only got to speak a little bit, but the discussion was lively, and the questions from the audience were particularly good - questions about race, class, gender, and the relative importance of vintage/retro/nostalgia. After I shut down a question about the possibility of female dandies with the reply "no," my mother raised her hand to ask us to elaborate because she didn't want to let me off the hook that easily.

The Fine Young Gentleman blog posted about the event here, and even put up an audio recording of the talk. (My favorite part of his writeup is obviously: 'The most memorable quote from the night came from Mr. Adams when he noted that “I think that probably the only people who wore bowties for years was the Nation Of Islam, they might have accidentally kept Brooks Brothers in business.”')

After the talk, we were treated to fantastic jazz by Dandy Wellington and his band.