Revisiting the Dandy Canon, From Baudelaire to Bloomsbury
How Blackness shaped the look of queer modernism
How Blackness shaped the look of queer modernism
The hostess of a London mansion party roams about in pyjamas, surveying the scene. Mildly perplexed by the company, she queries a few party-crashers: ‘Who are all this white trash, anyway? Seems to me I must be in the wrong house.’
The hostess, by the way, is not Black; she is a send-up, a jab at the interwar vogue for Black culture that circulated Europe and extended to every class level. But here, in this scene, the emphasis is on a mixture of white intelligentsia and upper-class bohemia whose dubious endorsements of Blackness were termed négrophilie. Let’s not get it twisted though: this portrait is dependent on the idea of pro-Blackness as somehow ridiculous – a strain of Bolly Bolshevik absurdity – and has little to do with interrogating negrophilia.
The above passage appears in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) and it is possible his depiction of the hostess was a trivializing swipe at the poet Nancy Cunard, whose anti-imperialist activism centring Black artists and intellectuals, though not entirely without complication, was unusually credible and collaborative for a white person at the time, even as it continued to be the subject of ridicule. Certainly, in the 1981 television adaptation of the novel, the hostess sports a bangle-sheathed arm and shingled hair à la Cunard. The directors excise her white trash comment.
On encountering Brideshead as a late teenager, I initially thought this character, known only as ‘the hostess’, was Black. But, beyond a passing reference to the singer Florence Mills, there are no Black women in Brideshead, a book by which I was once hopelessly, helplessly enchanted – seduced perhaps most by its floridness, seemingly blithe homoerotics and, significantly, by its staging of the figure of the aesthete.
In McKenzie Wark’s ‘auto-ethnography’ Reverse Cowgirl (2020), the narrator employs what we might think of as those psychic loopholes made available to the vigilant transsexual through fashion: wayward possibilities in the given lot, the dealt hand, which allow one to inhabit, in plain sight, the otherwise impermissible. Cowgirl’s narrator is able to find temporary sanctuary in the folds of passing trends. Some prove more pliable than others: androgynous styles or, more to the point, styles which allow for what might be understood as ‘androgyny’ in a given era – in Wark’s case, the mod, a descendent of the dandy – provide enough leeway for that mental slippage, out of a body, out of a gender, out of a world.
On first reading Brideshead, the figures of the dandy and the aesthete announced themselves to me with similar pertinence. Their accoutrements, their motifs – the dandy’s suit, for example – became sites bristling with gender aberration, bringing softer, sideways and, indeed, antithetical registers of masculinity but, most importantly, the epicene and downright feminine. These archetypes offered not just a stylistic retreat but a full-blown ontological refuge. It was also ahistorical: one could be a 19th century dandizette or one could be Grace Jones. But, as Wark has discussed elsewhere, the better one is at such an escape trick, the more it becomes a trap – one that can go on for years, forever even, allowing you, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s phrasing from The Waves (1931), to ‘defer that appalling moment’.
Brideshead has become a canonical dandy text. One whose very same dandyism was ultimately a point of embarrassment for Waugh as he veered further into conservatism. This embarrassment is, in turn, a point of growing amusement for me: curiously – or perhaps not – it is primarily with other Black, working-class queers that I have shared the book’s enchantments; the very same ‘overwroughtness’ that induced Waugh to disown Brideshead induced us to claim its pleasures. Further, this aestheticism is tied specifically to a Black queerness that is not merely absent from but, strikingly, forever just-out-of-sight, not only in Brideshead but in a whole raft of modernist narratives and histories.
One morning in Bloomsbury in 1922, a group of women were painting in the Life Room of the Slade School of Fine Art. In burst two students: the artist Rex Whistler and Stephen Tennant, a socialite and Britain’s ‘last professional beauty’, hair shimmering with real gold dust. The women’s shock upon their entrance – the Life Room was gender segregated – only doubled after Whistler and Tennant kneeled before one of the students, a young Black woman, and presented her with a bouquet of snow-coloured roses. She was amused by the theatrics.
Whistler and Tennant were faint but partial influences for Waugh’s Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte – two of the protagonists in Brideshead. (Readers might know Whistler for his racist caricatures that appear as part of a mural for the now-shuttered restaurant in the basement of Tate Britain.)
Though few Black people figure in Charles’s and Sebastian’s lives in the novel, the anecdote of the Slade woman, among others, evidences that they certainly figured in those of their real-life counterparts. Indeed, they featured in every aspect of modernist life and art, every formal innovation, sensibility, queer bent, dint and glimmer of the period. Blackness was, after all, foundational to modernism, yes, but also – and the emphasis is an important one – to British Modernism, Bloomsbury Modernism, Aesthete Modernism.
The dandy and the aesthete are not the same, but they overlap enough for me to talk about them here in the same breath: both cultivate an extra-stylistic investment in life and dress which also pertains to such cognate figures as the fop, the macaroni and the quaintrelle. Each sits at both the periphery and the centre of fashion. They can, for example, appear to transgress while simultaneously belonging to and actively participating in a regulatory dynamic within bourgeois taste-making, not to mention propping up elitist functions in general: even the Roman Emperor Nero had his friend Gaius Petronius Arbiter act as an arbiter elegantiae (judge of taste) at court.
But, equally, they can be antithetical to all this.
There is the minimalist aesthete and the maximalist aesthete. The former’s taste arises from the discernment, restraint and detachment exemplified in Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. The voluptuary latter’s evolves through exposure, exercising faculties of sensation and pleasure, sensorial immersion. (A spirit alive in, I’d argue, Larry Mitchell’s 1977 novel The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions.) There is also the arcadian dandy – pining for beauties of non-existent pasts – and the utopian, made soignée through the silver gleam of high modernity, urbanity, futurity. Of course, all such binaries disintegrate under even the gentlest scrutiny. Either way, much aestheticist art and living seems to ferment, and traffic heavily in, anachronism.
It’s hard to talk about dandyism without mentioning Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. And then you must mention the French decadent influence: Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Verlaine. (There is something of a contradiction in the notion of a ‘dandy canon’, since dandies, like their rarefied (dis)passions, remain fairly recherché subjects. But even dandyism has its fringe figures: Jeanne Duval, Ouida, Richard Bruce Nugent.) It’s likewise hard at this point not to mention Susan Sontag, who identified the 18th century as a kind of ornate heart of Salisbury Museum aestheticism in Europe: the rococo in its broadest sense entailed a loose conglomeration of styles, inclinations, sensibilities that came into alignment with an emphasis that was previously unavailable, becoming the birthplace of that particular high camp lineage that would include
the aforementioned Beardsley, Tennant and Wilde.
Rarely mentioned, however, is that, at the point of this same conceptual consolidation (coterminous with the height of the transatlantic slave trade), another one formed: Blackness and dandyism. Writ large in the 18th century public vision of the dandy was the formerly enslaved Julius Soubise. Taken from Jamaica and ‘gifted’ to society hostess Catherine Douglas, who then ‘manumitted’ him, Soubise was given the sobriquet ‘Mungo Macaroni’ in one popular engraving published by M. Darly in 1772. By this time, the term ‘macaroni’ was loosely used to refer to young men who had supposedly picked up one too many affectations during their grand tour; not just the consumption of pasta they initially named themselves after, but the rampant homosexuality believed to be at large on the continent. Eventually, the term was used more generally for men deemed effeminate and overly preoccupied with fashion. Formerly enslaved as ornament, Soubise came to mediate his life through ornament. Another of his famous monikers – ‘fop among fops’ – emphasizes his centrality, even as he has disappeared in later histories.
A far-from-comprehensive primer on Black aestheticism in the UK might include, alongside Soubise: Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989); the fashion oeuvres of Grace Wales Bonner and Ib Kamara; the research and criticism of KJ Abudu; Gemma Romain’s biographical work on Jamaican figures in modernist Britain, including the performer Berto Pasuka; post-Windrush apparel; the artist Maud Sulter; and Abondance Matanda’s essay, ‘The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes’ (2017). Black dandyism is often framed as a ‘take’ on white dandyism. While we can read many Black engagements with dandyism as plays on expectancy through which stylistic excrescence does something beyond assimilation (since it’s usually operating on grounds of defiance over respectability) to leave it here is to miss the point: to read it as a ‘taking up of ’ is to deny the Blackness integral to dandyism. Just as Soubise is omitted from the conceptualization of 18th century aestheticism, so too have accounts of the modernist aesthete swept away the likes of the Slade woman along with a plethora of other Black artists, writers and ‘ordinary’ unrecorded Black lives of the kind Saidiya Hartman describes in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) as ‘aesthetical negroes’.
A nacreous streak unites Tennant and Nugent – two of the most under-published writer-artist-aesthetes of the early 20th century. I cannot establish whether the two ever crossed paths, but it is not impossible. Tennant was famously always at work on his manuscripts – thousands of pages written in rainbow inks – only to see precious little of it in print during his lifetime. ‘A Decadent Dream Deferred’, Michèle Mendelssohn’s 2019 essay on Nugent, a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, describes an encounter with Nugent’s archive lodged within the ‘golden marble walls’ of Yale’s Beinecke Library (where, coincidentally, much of Tennant’s archive is also stored). Like Tennant’s, Nugent’s unpublished manuscripts are illuminated in jewel inks. Unlike Tennant’s, these luminescent papers reek of cat’s urine – intimating a life lived on the fringes and stints of homelessness. Indeed, Nugent drops off the archival map for years at a time (possibly in pursuit of doomed, elaborate romances with mob bosses).
For a time, Nugent was at the centre of the Harlem Renaissance. Now, he can be found on its reputational outskirts. This is not to say he wasn’t at odds with the centre at the time, just as he was at odds with seemingly every milieu he came into contact with. Nugent’s books, unpublished during his lifetime and written mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, are full of tales of Harlem and Greenwich Village parties, scenes of cruising, boozing and high camp badinage, as well as a rare early glimpse of the formative queer house-ball scene, told through the eyes of an arguably transfeminine character of colour. Of his novels, only his roman-à-clef, Gentleman Jigger (c.1928–33), was published in full in 2008, but appears subsequently to have fallen out of print.
In 1929, visiting London, Nugent spent a weekend in the country with E.M. Forster. It is not certain how Nugent and Forster met, though Nugent was at the time on tour as a cast member of Dorothy Heyward’s Porgy (1927), for which he’d originally auditioned as a joke. Was it just the two of them? Or were they at one of those gay house parties described in Bloomsbury histories, featuring modernist dandies like Tennant, the Sitwell brothers and Lytton Strachey? What we do know is that Queer Harlem and Queer Bloomsbury met behind closed doors and that Nugent would have been a far cry from Forster’s only queer racialized character, Cocoanut, from The Other Boat (1957–58). Nugent, who invented Green Dawn cocktails for drinking while reading aloud Marcel Proust and Ronald Firbank, and who enjoyed regaling people with the scandalous exploits of his mafiosi boyfriends, would have put to shame any one of the British aesthetes he encountered; he would have, without trying, left an indelible mark, bequeathing not just literary flourishes but ways of thinking, imagining, experimenting that reconstituted the very essence of dandyism and modernism in Britain. As his friend and literary executor Thomas Wirth noted in a 1985 article for Black American Literature Forum, ‘[Nugent] exposes a whole new dimension in the history and sexual politics of race, gender and ethnicity’. He was specifically referencing Nugent’s sex life, but we can easily extend this to his literary escapades in Europe.
If, as Hartman maintains in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, ‘the flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl’, then accounts of the modernist dandy’s glamour that made it into history are surely but a whisper, a blanched and faded imprint, of the ‘aesthetical negro’.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘Notes on the Black Dandy’
Main image: Stephen Tennant, his Nanny and Rex Whistler in Milan, 1924. Courtesy: The Salisbury Museum