:: Article

Ich bin ein Dandy

By Thom Cuell.

In his memoir The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp described his attitude to style as “swimming with the tide – but faster”; taking perceived character flaws and making them central to his outward persona. This requires a very deliberate act of reinvention: “you have to polish up your raw identity until it becomes a lifestyle, something interesting by which you are proud to be identified and something with which you can barter with the outside world”. One anecdote to which Mr Crisp often returned when discussing style concerned a gentleman of his acquaintance, whose name was Mr Tillet, but who was better known as The Angel. Crisp described the man as “shorter than I am, but twice as wide… his head was as long from the chin to the crown as the skull of a donkey. His pate was bald, but the rest of his body was covered with fur, right down to his fingernails. When his employer first saw him, she fainted”.

Others may have found these physical characteristics to be an unconquerable disadvantage. Tillet, however, decided to make a virtue of necessity. He sought out a position in which his distinctive features could begin to work in his favour and went on, in Crisp’s words, to make “more money in four short years as a wrestler than the divine Joe Louis made out of a lifetime in the boxing ring”. This, then, is the key to style: “he took that which made him so like himself, and put it in its appropriate setting”.

This act of self-definition is the key to dandyism. I once spoke with an author who had met with a former mistress of Ernest Hemingway, and had been advised by her to develop a ‘figura’, an outward persona distinct from the private self. Key personality traits are foregrounded, exaggerated, until they come to define one in the public eye. The dandy, whether famous or not, engages in this act of self-curation. For Crisp, sexuality was his defining characteristic: “I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one. That is to say I put my case not only before the people who knew me but also before strangers… As soon as I put my uniform on, the rest of my life solidified around me like a plaster cast. From that moment on, my friends were anyone who could put up with the disgrace; my occupation, any job from which I was not given the sack; my playground, any café or restaurant from which I was not barred”. Other dandies may choose to highlight an affinity with a particular age, a physical characteristic or an idiosyncratic mode of expression; whatever makes them most like themselves.

My own introduction to dandyism came through Dickon Edwards, the London-based diarist and frontman of the band Fosca. Declaring himself fundamentally unsuited to work, Mr Edwards set about trying to make ‘being Dickon Edwards’ his primary occupation. Like Morrissey, he was not an adept singer or musician, but he made these traits seem unimportant by comparison to his intriguing persona and witty, pithy lyrics. Fosca’s image was ruthlessly policed; Edwards always sported bleached hair, a suit and heavy foundation, and declared that any band-member who attended a rehearsal session unshaven would be required to do three laps of the car-park, chanting ‘cleanse, tone, moisturise’.

While he never attained popular success through his music, Edwards became something of an internet celebrity by being an early adopter of blogging – his website, Diary at the Centre of the Earth, has an archive dating back to December 1997. He quickly recognised that the format was ideal for the creation and promotion of the figura, allowing him to record his epigrams, and detailing his social encounters with musicians, (pick-up) artists, and most of all, the reactions he provoked from strangers in the street. His image became an influence on my own, and through his diary I was introduced to classic dandies like Crisp and Saki, the Edwardian short story writer (‘reading Saki, drinking sake and being sarky’ is one of Mr Edwards’s mottoes). I began scouring thrift stores for suitable attire. My greatest find was a black pinstripe suit, from Harvey Nicholls, the perfect size, with labels still attached; surely a sign of divine providence.

So, what is a dandy? In some respects, dandyism is a form of magic, or at least it requires a certain amount of magical thinking. Many dandyish affectations (smoking a pipe, drinking absinthe, wearing a cravat) involve a ritualistic set of activities, performed largely in private, with the aim of altering the consciousness of the participant. A well-tailored suit, the right pair of shoes or accessory, can confer a profound feeling of calm, confidence or wellbeing in the wearer as much as any concoction of herbs brewed up in a cauldron. Perhaps it is easier to identify dandyism than it is to define it. Sartorial elegance is clearly a requirement; the dandy must dress with a unique twist, develop a trademark, whether it be Oscar Wilde’s green carnation or Gerard de Nerval’s pet lobster, which he would walk on a lead through the Palais Royal gardens in Paris.

A list of notable dandies would include the notorious regency fop Beau Brummel, alongside fin de siècle authors like Wilde and Beaudelaire, and stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. There would be kings (Edward VIII and George VI are big inspirations for beard-wearing dandies) alongside commoners like Crisp. It is notable that dandyism has been the historical prerogative of white men; interviewed in I am Dandy – The Return of the Elegant Gentleman (Rose Callahan and Nathaniel Adams, 2013), Michael Andrew, a sharply-dressed author from Texas with a penchant for Italian tailoring, bemoans “the absence of well-dressed African-American males in pop culture on a consistent basis”, pointing out that the primary archetype for the well-dressed black man is the pimp. This historical imbalance is being put right; Andrew is one of a number of African-American dandies highlighted by Adams. The cultural importance of dandyism is made plain in the interviews he carries out. For example, the Churchwell brothers, a pair of medical professors from Tennessee, attribute their determination to dress well to their memories of their father. The first black reporter for The Nashville Banner, he was forced by segregation to file his copy from home, but was still determined to dress up for his job, an attitude they have maintained in their own careers.

There is also the vexed question of the female dandy, or quaintrelle. In his 2002 essay Who’s A Dandy?, the journalist and MP George Walden argued that no woman could be a dandy, as they are automatically expected to be fastidious about clothing. To me, this seems narrow-minded. One could make a case for women like Madonna, who create and recreate their public persona with the requisite flair and attention to detail. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is no dandy – her outfits are too spectacular, like those of Leigh Bowery, belonging firmly to the world of performance art. Such minor distinctions are the bedrock of dandyism.

The nineteenth century dancer Lola Montez is a historical example of the female dandy. Her story was told by biographer James Morton in ‘Her Life and Conquests’ (2007). Born plain old Elizabeth Gilbert in Sligo, 1821, her early life followed the typical course for a woman of her class. She was unexceptional at school, and after leaving she married a Captain in the British army, travelling with him to his posting in Calcutta. Here, he took up with another woman; presumably glad to be rid of a husband who was something of a drunken boor, Gilbert returned to Europe with £10,000 in her pocket, and proceeded to reinvent herself as an exotic dancer, going by the nom de false ‘Donna Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez’. By all accounts, as a dancer she was terrible. A report of a show in Connecticut described her act thus: “she flounces about like a stuck pig, and clenches her short clothes, raising them nearly to her waist, while with a thin, scrawny leg, she keeps up a constant thumping upon the stage, as if she was in a slight spasm”. Nevertheless, she was able to command a higher fee for her public performances than Charles Dickens, and bought ruin to the Bavarian King Ludwig, who rained honours and riches upon her until he was deposed by a furious mob (their rage at least in part roused by their monarch’s scandalous relationship) in 1848. The figura, Lola Montez, utterly outshone the reality of Elizabeth Gilbert; placed in her proper context, she received riches and acclaim far in excess of what she could have earned through hard work alone.

Montez lived out her retirement in America, in relative comfort. This goes against the grain, as the idea of decline is crucial to the concept of dandyism. Like orchids, dandies are thought of as short-lived, delicate beings. As with so many aspects of dandyism, Beau Brummel set the template. After falling out with his patron, the oafish Prince Regent, Brummel was exiled to France. He received a sinecure from friends back home, a cushy diplomatic position with a small income attached, but this was not enough to keep him in the style to which he had become accustomed. He spent time in debtor’s prison, and cut a shabby figure on his release. Walden describes Brummel as he appeared in the 1830s, “an imperious Englishman dressed in tattered clothes… held upright by little more, it seemed, than stiff-necked pride”. To survive, he was reliant on the goodwill (and credit) extended to him by shopkeepers; each night, he held grand balls in his hotel room, his imaginary guests announced by a sympathetic porter.

Dandyism as an idea has been written off by commentators such as Thomas Carlyle, who described it as “a survival of the primeval superstition, self-worship”, and Honore de Balzac (“a modish affectation”). Baudelaire captured the ephemeral nature of the condition when he described dandyism as “a sunset… glorious, without heat and full of melancholy”. For all that, though, it is persistent. Walden’s description of Brummel suggests that the figura, forged in a crucible of self-determination and projected forward with every atom of his being, carried on the struggle where Beau’s weak flesh had long since given up the ghost. And dandies still exist today, despite the tyranny of mass-manufactured jeans and training shoes.

In the twenty first-century, dandyism has found a home online, with dandies starting blogs to provide fashion advice, or simply show off their latest looks. This resurgence prompted Callahan and Adams to immortalise fifty-nine of the world’s greatest living dandies in I am Dandy (I assume the photographs I sent them were lost in the post), with descriptions of their influences and personal philosophies. Attempting to define dandyism, Adams suggests that it is less a lifestyle choice than a psychological disorder: “these are men who, stranded alone on a desert island, would still dress up every day, using fish bones as tie pins and polishing their shoes with squid ink”. However, in his introduction to the volume, journalist and former member of Andy Warhol’s Factory Glenn O’Brien suggests a more noble calling, arguing “if there is a cardinal sin in our world it is not self-absorption but mass-absorption, the dissolution of the individual into the mass. We will have a free country when the majority of people create themselves… A man who steps out of uniform is a hero, in his own way”.

This notion of well-turned out freedom fighters has already crossed the Atlantic. Britain likes to think of itself today as a classless society; Tony Blair boldly declared at the Labour Party conference in 1999 that ‘the class war is over’. However, the British public still pores over outfits, parsing their meaning and implications, as keenly as if we were a nation of fashion columnists rather than shopkeepers. Members of the current coalition government are acutely aware of this. David Cameron, for example, was the only male guest at the wedding of Prince William not to wear a morning suit, so terrified is he of appearing ‘posh’. On holiday, he is never far from the regulation blue polo shirt, the uniform of the respectably middle class man at leisure.

This sensitivity over dress has resulted in a curious role-reversal whereby tuxedos may be worn in public by miner’s sons like Bryan Ferry, but not by Cameron, the fifth cousin of the Queen, and woe betide anyone who forgets the rules. This can be illustrated by a look at the curious career of Henry Conway, who we may refer to as the Marie Antoinette of Austerity. Young master Conway first came to the public’s attention in 2008 when it was revealed that his father, an MP, had been using tax-payer’s money to over-pay Henry for his work as a ‘research assistant’ in his office (at least Henry was merely overpaid – his younger brother Freddie was receiving a salary despite there being no record of him doing any work at all). While lesser mortals would have decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and slunk out of the public eye, Conway instead saw the scandal as a means of launching himself into London’s social scene. Rebranding himself as ‘Queen Sloane’, he was photographed exiting Mayfair nightclubs in a variety of extravagant costumes. One image in particular, in which “a bedraggled Big Issue seller looks on open-mouthed” as Henry stepped out of a horse-drawn pumpkin-shaped coach, was described by Guardian columnist Marina Hyde as “the soiree equivalent of suggesting a bread shortage might be solved by the consumption of cake”. Needless to say, Conway’s attempts to win the public’s hearts and minds were firmly rebuffed, and he now lives a peripatetic existence in the darkest corners of digital television.

Conway’s poshness was exacerbated by the fact that his persona was entirely irony-free. Other modern dandies have been more successful playing with style to undermine and poke fun at our social mores. One man performing such a role is Gustav Temple, editor of The Chap magazine. Temple identifies with outsiders such as Wilde and Disraeli who adopted and surpassed the styles of their social betters, describing his intention to “subvert class roles, to show it’s not about being well-bred or educated, it’s about attitude”. Dandies have always played with class distinctions. For example, Brummel and his aristocratic acolytes rubbed their linen trousers with glass to give them a frayed and worn appearance, the forerunner of our expensively distressed denims. Temple’s own creed can be summarised as “first class for all’. Writing for Pravda in 1921, Mr Lenin envisaged that “when we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories”. Temple is likewise striving for a general raising of standards. Interviewing him for I am Dandy, Nathaniel Adams summed up his ethos:

“Like many on the left, The Chap stood against the takeover of local and independent businesses, and the homogenization of culture by giant brands. Where The Chap diverged from your run-of-the-mill beret-and-dreadlocked would-be revolutionary in ideology was in the notion that change could be bought about with style, panache, humour and a commitment to the fight against cliche, vulgarity and sportswear. Gustav and his confreres dreamed of a future in which people dress beautifully rather than trendily, value rather than scorn other people’s opinions, and doff their hats, give up their seats, and open the door for every man, woman and child regardless of race, colour or creed.”

As an advocate of what he terms ‘anarcho-dandyism’, Temple has taken part in a series of spectacular actions, including a ‘Civilise the City’ protest in 2004, at which he and his associates declared Piccadilly Circus a ‘hat-doffing zone’, entering branches of Starbucks to order Oolong tea and requesting devilled kidneys at McDonalds. On another occasion, along with his associates Michael Atree and Torquil Arbuthnot, he entered the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern dressed in vintage mountaineering gear and proceeded to scale a 47 foot high sculpture by Rachel Whiteread. On reaching the summit, they planted the union jack, before whiling away the time it took security to arrive by drinking martinis and smoking their pipes. It’s worth noting at this point that Ms Whiteread’s monolithic sculptures seem to have a peculiar effect on anarchists. In 1993, the same year she won the Turner Prize, she was named ‘the worst artist of the year’ by the K Foundation, an offshoot of The KLF. She tried to ignore the provocation, until the Foundation threatened to burn the £40,000 cash prize on the steps of Tate Britain if she didn’t come to collect it in person.

Temple’s light-hearted but pointed activities are inspired by the idea of detournement. Literally translated as ‘hijacking’ or ‘rerouting’, detournement rearranges the symbols of capitalism into witty and subversive new forms. Temple adopts the manners and stylings of the upper classes, embodying the standard of life he feels all should aspire to, but which capitalism fails to provide. Courteous and educated, Temple appears to be the polar opposite of the typical class war demonstrator, and offers a vision of the future which has a wide-spread appeal. His magazine, started as a joke, has attracted over 10,000 subscribers, and has inspired a musical genre (‘chap-hop’), a brand of pipe tobacco and an annual athletics meet. The warm response with which the public has greeted his whimsical, utopian brand of protest suggests that the political arena could be the appropriate setting for the modern dandy.

One of the more recent obituaries for dandyism was written by Roland Barthes, who argued that modern capitalism had sounded the death knell: “reduced to a freedom to buy, dandyism could only suffocate and expire”. Barthes perhaps failed to identify the subversive potential of dandyism; in an age when even archetypal patricians like David Cameron are desperate to appear middle class, then the fine formality of the dandy acts as a calculated rebellion against the spectacle of the bland. In fact, though detournement was primarily a Situationist tactic, one could reach even further back to pick a political underpinning for the modern dandy. The words of the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, written during the Spanish Civil War, are a suitable rallying cry: “We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts.” Indeed, not only are dandies unafraid of ruin, often they actively embrace it. After all, we have nothing to lose but our pocket-watches.

Dandies, after all, are natural transgressors. Sebastian Horsley, the deceased artist who is a Banquo-like presence throughout I am Dandy thanks to his influence on many of the featured fops, was an enthusiastic breaker of taboos. His artwork made much of his fondness for hard drugs and prostitutes, and he was relieved of his duties as a relationship guru for The Observer after his discussions of anal sex proved rather too strong for readers of that august journal to stomach. Though not explicitly political (in a rare contribution to legislative debate, he argued that prostitution should remain outlawed, as legalization would rob it of its frisson), he was keen to challenge society’s core traditional beliefs, at one point travelling to the Philippines to take part in a re-enactment of the crucifixion. This was not a success; he passed out as the nails were driven through his hands, and fell off the cross, explaining later that he was too fat for the crucifix’s foot-rest to support him. A natural desire to shock and hog the limelight was coupled with a genuine desire to confront and question established values, and this he did with dandyish elan.

More recently, Russell Brand has used the guest-editorship of the New Statesman to call for a revolution in our approach to politics. While one may quibble with the former Mr Katy Perry’s analysis (basically he comes across like the paramilitary wing of the Transcendental Meditation movement, with extra Billy Connolly quotes), he identifies a lack of flair in political discourse, leading to a loss of engagement: “there is a tendency to confuse seriousness with solemnity. Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.” This is what the dandy can provide; as Temple’s humorous protests engage those who are turned off by the earnest atmosphere of protest meetings, the exuberant verbosity of Brand’s article ensured that it dominated discussion on social media for an age. Indeed, we are now being treated to the spectacle of various comedians attacking each other through the medium of op-ed pieces on political websites.

In an age where collective action and trade unionism seem increasingly passé, then committing to a dandified lifestyle is a means of signalling one’s rejection of mass-production and perpetual consumerism, of aiming at something higher. This is a protest more suited to the social mores of today than the march or strike – as Dickon Edwards once sang, ‘I wish there were demos and marches for those who are allergic to crowds’. So let this be our message; anyone who values leisure over haste, individuality over conformity, beauty over profit can be a dandy, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Dandy’.

Thom Cuell has an MA in English Literature, and writes the literary blog Workshy Fop. He has also had essays and reviews published by The Literateur and The Weeklings.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014.