BY Emily King in Opinion | 03 MAR 04
Featured in
Issue 81

The Charming Man

Our continued fascination with the dandy

BY Emily King in Opinion | 03 MAR 04

The dandy leads a double life. As well as being the all-embracing trope of male dressiness, a model commonly applied to early evening television presenters and sportsmen, he is a jealously guarded archetype, the perfect expression of a host of arcana relating to male grooming and behaviour. One person's dandy is another's fashion victim, or fop, or fogey. In rigorous dandy circles inappropriate sartorial suggestions are met with pursed-lip silence. Talking to the dandy faithful inspires feelings of girly foolishness, an unease that is not allayed by the wheeling out of women in suits under the title 'female dandy'. If there is a single quality that unites the disparate models, it is male exclusivity.

The dandy stance involves numerous paradoxes, all variants on the theme of originality in the face of conformism. Dandies cut a unique path through the highly codified arena of masculine dress; their exploration of masculinity draws them to the verge of the feminine. They tend toward nostalgia, but in a manner that is always of its time; the dual embodiment of conservatism and transgression. According to dandy connoisseur Michael Bracewell, dandyism relies on the little twist, the détourne between sameness and difference. It is an inimitable quality, from somewhere deep inside.

The romance of dandyism is hard to bypass, and the concept is prone to throwing up ideals. Bracewell proposes the invisible dandy: the man whose attention to codes of masculinity is so subtle and acute as to be invisible. His model conforms to the dandy template, the early 19th-century army officer George Bryan 'Beau' Brummell, whose dress was correct rather than conspicuous. Brummell is celebrated for his insistence that 'the severest mortification which a gentleman could incur was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance'. Christopher Breward, co-curator of the British Council touring exhibition '21st Century Dandy', suggests another ideal: the naked dandy. Emphasizing the dandy's concern with hygiene, he argues that the rituals lie deeper than collars and cuffs. More than just clothing and cleanliness, both of these models evoke a fusion of the British and French traditions. Whereas the former is empirical, based on outward attention to grooming and dress, the latter is theoretical: to be naked or invisible and yet still be a dandy requires a certain state of mind.

Dandyism crossed from England to France in the 1830s and the transition remains a point of reference for dandies of all kinds. From that moment on the concept broke free of its Bond Street, Savile Row and St James' Street origins (although French dandies were, and still are, partial to traditional English clothing) and attached itself to a stream of literary, aesthetic and philosophical models. This expanded notion made its way back across the Channel in the second half of the 19th century, leading to the late Victorian blossoming of bohemian dandies. Of course, charting such a history is an activity fraught with contradiction; it involves applying a term that is all about individualism to broad social change or subcultural activity. Take the Peacock Revolution of the 1960s: while some of the newly fashion-conscious men might count as dandies, the majority were simply consumers. Or the New Wave of the early 1980s: can dandyism possibly apply to figures such as Adam Ant, who were famed for being good-looking beneath their fancy dress?

If the recent flurry of interest is anything to go by, we must be in the midst of a dandified moment. The Moscow launch of Breward and Alice Cicolini's British Council '21st Century Dandy' inspired competitive dressing and intense sartorial debate in the local press. The show is currently making its way through Europe's capitals: next stop, Madrid. Simultaneously the inaugural Brighton Photography Biennial opened with the exhibition 'Make Life Beautiful', a history of the dandy in photography, curated by Jeremy Millar and housed in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery next to that epitome of dandy architecture the Brighton Pavilion. Finally Mark Leckey's video Parade (2003) (see review page 96), also on show at the Brighton Photography Biennial is a collage of still and moving images dealing with aestheticism and disaffection, dandyism's major themes.

The '21st Century Dandy' and 'Make Life Beautiful' are united in their dandy roll-call - Brummell, Barbey D'Aurevilly, Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde - but this coincidence proves misleading. Although the cast is the same, the intentions are different. The subject of the British Council show is the state of Britain's menswear industry, which after an arduous development currently seems to be enjoying a high. Meanwhile in Brighton the clothes are incidental, although often wonderful, and the real concern is the upfront photographic pose. Millar's gallery of show-offs undermine associations between exploitation and photographic pleasure and endorse the act of looking. The exhibition derives from the same impulse that prompted Germaine Greer's Boy (2003), the recently published celebration of unashamed gawking. In an egalitarian gesture Millar includes several female poseurs who are convincing as exhibitionists, but not as dandies.

The most striking revelation to emerge from the recent attention to dandyism is the ongoing codification and regimentation of even the most casual forms of men's dress. In photographs taken by Nigel Shafran to illustrate the '21st Century Dandy' catalogue, the well-dressed subjects seethe with competitive aggression. Among them are erstwhile Terrace Casuals and latter-day fashion retailers Steve Sanderson and Nigel Lawson, who have reworked their youthful dressing habits into an elaborate sport. Based in Manchester, they spend their energies keeping one step ahead of the pack, an operation that might involve going full circle before everyone else has made it through 180 degrees. At the core of their activities is the romanticization of their own immediate past.

And this is where Leckey comes in. His work has long been characterized by nostalgia and self-documentation and this thread of inquiry has drawn him inexorably to dandyism. The artist appears to have spent so long considering his own desires and predilections that he is on the verge of talking himself out of them. In Parade he strikes the dandy's favourite pose, one of elegantly jaded detachment.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.