preCAMP: Dandyism

One should either be a work of Art, or wear a work of Art” Oscar Wilde

A dandy (also known as a beau, gallant or flamboyant person) is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies. Historically, especially in late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain, a dandy, who was self-made, often strove to imitate an aristocratic style of life despite coming from a middle-class background.

Given these connotations, dandyism can be seen as a political protestation against the rise of egalitarian principles — often including nostalgic adherence to feudal or pre-industrial values, such as the ideals of “the perfect gentleman” or “the autonomous aristocrat”.

Though previous manifestations, of Alcibiades, and of the petit-maître and the muscadin have been noted by John C. Prevost, the modern practice of dandyism first appeared in the revolutionary 1790s, both in London and in Paris. The dandy cultivated skeptical reserve, yet to such extremes that the novelist George Meredith, himself no dandy, once defined “cynicism” as “intellectual dandyism”; nevertheless, the Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the great dandies of literature. Some took a more benign view; Thomas Carlyle in his book Sartor Resartus, wrote that a dandy was no more than “a clothes-wearing man”.

Charles Baudelaire, in the later, “metaphysical,” phase of dandyism defined the dandy as one who elevates æsthetics to a living religion, that the dandy’s mere existence reproaches the responsible citizen of the middle class: “Dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism” and “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.”

The word dandy first appears in a Scottish border ballad, circa 1780, but probably without its more recent meaning. The original, full form of ‘dandy’ may have been jack-a-dandy. It was a vogue word during the Napoleonic Wars. In that contemporary slang, ‘a dandy’ was differentiated from ‘a fop’ in that the dandy’s dress was more refined and sober than the fop’s.

In the 21st century, the word “dandy” is a jocular, often sarcastic adjective meaning “fine” or “great”, while “a dandy” refers to a well-groomed, well-dressed, and self-absorbed man.

 

The gilded 1890s provided many suitably sheltered settings for dandyism. The poets Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, the American artist James McNeill Whistler, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Max Beerbohm were dandies of the period, as was Robert de Montesquiou — Marcel Proust’s inspiration for the Baron de Charlus; in Italy, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Carlo Bugatti exemplified the artistic bohemian dandyism of the fin de siecle.

The 20th century has been impatient with dandyism: the Prince of Wales, briefly Edward VIII was a dandy; it did not increase his public appeal. Nevertheless George Walden, in the essay Who’s a Dandy?, identifies Noël Coward, Andy Warhol, and Quentin Crisp as modern dandies.

In Japan, dandyism became a fashion subculture during the late 1990s.

The artist, writer, and hedonist Sebastian Horsley identifies himself as a dandy, and discusses the subject at length in his biography.

 

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