The Dandy Underworld
Glenn O’Brien Roots for the Daringly Dressed
Men look different now. You can tell them apart better. It seems that the American male has finally begun to relax his way into the luxurious habits of self-adornment that women have enjoyed for centuries. Men are dressing themselves into veritable uniqueness. And, finally, this no longer necessarily incurs the disapproval of others. It used to be that you had to be a priest to get away with looking so dazzling; now, anyone with the imagination and resources can do it.
All of a sudden, dandies are everywhere. Dandies to the right of us running Wall Street, and dandies to the left occupying it. Dandies in Brooklyn. Dandies in Chelsea. We have dandy socialites, dandy sommeliers, dandy Web sites, dandy books, dandy boutiques and fashion lines, dandy bloggers and photographers. We have dandies behind us (I hope they don’t have canes), and dandies in front of us (they look mild enough, certainly not angry). But they want something. They want to be noticed!
Dandyism is the closet that the closet came out of. It’s a general dispensation against the former sin of vanity, which is now acknowledged by its male branch, and most women, as something required to survive in our culture.
This is the Dandification of America. It’s not just Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. There are dandies in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Shaker Heights! There are dandies in Detroit, living under tough but inexpensive conditions. There are dandies Upstate, making expensive raw-milk cheeses and ales with humorous names, and in the Bronx, brewing artisanal bitters.
It’s as if suddenly guys everywhere decided, hey, we’re freelance, and we’re going to look it. Or we’re in the creative department, we can’t look like an account guy; besides, they’re going to fire us eventually anyway, if we’re not already climbing the ladder elsewhere. Men everywhere suddenly realized they didn’t have to keep their heads down. They decided that the only way they were going to get ahead and/or laid was to be memorable, to stick out like a sore thumb.
There are so many people out there, yet so few who stick to our databases. And so sartorial mnemonic tactics are being resorted too. Semi-scary tattoos. Moustache wax. Fluorescent socks. Norfolk jackets in possible upholstery fabric. Ankle nudity. Used bespoke shoes. Slippers embroidered with Latin sayings or Odd Fellow–type symbolism. Boutonnieres, surgeon’s cuffs, waistcoat slips and spats . . . why not? Anything goes.
Dandyism in the young generation is multiverse; some of it is manifest in what is sometimes known as the hipster look. Men, particularly young Brooklynites, are often accused by clever journos of having “ironic beards.” True, there is often a retro reference, and sometimes they look as if they just arrived from late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century Central Casting. They seem to be saying to the world, you might think you’re going to a futuristic future, but we’ve turned back. They are also saying to the fashion world, the customer is always right.
Then again, some contemporary dandies are more eclectic and fashion-involved. They’ll mix a barn jacket with two tartans and something velvet and something recent and Lanvin. They’re beyond a style or a period; they’re unafraid, and their only deference is to their own taste. They’re out of uniform, and they’re making statements. They’re taking their aggressions out on fashion, and it’s making the world look different.
Men do not present a unified front anymore. Look at a picture of a ball game from 1950—every man in a dark suit, white shirt and a hat. Today, the only time we see that sort of unanimity is when everyone wears team colors for the big game. The world is a big mess, all over the place. People in T-shirts and tuxes at the same event. Even uniforms have gone.
What is this sort of new era of dandyism about? There have always been clothes men around, in every generation—men whose style of dress people noted and remarked upon. I’m not talking about bohemians or entertainers but real-world dudes, daring enough to look a bit wild in the context of their respectable and generally conformist milieu. They were dandies, indeed, but to the man in the street, the notion of dandy is very different. A dandy is probably a fop, or a fruit or some other inelegantly blurted derogation. For some, a dandy is a fussy person. Sometimes the term implies a somewhat retro form of dress. And until fairly recently, most made anyone aiming or claiming to be a dandy seem a bit musty or retro.
Not anymore. Dandies are living in the moment and selecting from whatever is available.
I doubt that at this point the general public has a solid handle on what a dandy is or what dandyism means. Maybe we need a reality show to explain it. Maybe the public thinks a dandy is a fop or an affected person. You know the type: bow ties, topiary beards, hefty tweeds, cigarette holders or pipes or hand-rolled tobacco, watch chains and fobs, felt hats, prominent tie clips, kilties, sock garters, jaunty scarves, piping or ribbon edges, fishtail trousers, furs, kohl, narrative suspenders, plaid on plaid, that sort of thing . . . but that’s just the beginning.
Highly personal style has never really had the support of the great American public. It led to eye rolling, hissing and endless speculation as to the depths of depravity the displayer might descend. But today, it seems suddenly okay. Like groom and groom—it’s a new age. Of course, now that we have extensive street-fashion photography, dandyism has become a legitimate path to celebrity. Not that we don’t have dandies that were celebrities for reasons additional, or even unrelated, to their dress. Whatever your trade, unless it’s a secret trade, it’s good to get your picture in the paper. The dandies are out of the closet, all over the place—Wall Street, art world, real estate, City Hall, law and medicine. There are dandies out there taking it to the next level, because it works. “Oh, yes, the fellow with the lavender overcoat, he’s a patent attorney and a damned good one.”
The artist Peter McGough of McDermott & McGough, who could teach the history of men’s fashion and who makes an art of his own style, introduced me to the young Mr. Natty Adams, who blogs on dandyism and has made a very interesting book on contemporary dandies in collaboration with the photographer Rose Callahan. A lot of very committed coxcombs are cataloged, from famed writer Gay Talese, the artist Paolo Canevari (Mr. Marina Abramović), Ed Hayes (the lawyer who engineered the Warhol Foundation) and jazz bandleader Michael Arenella to the London-based writer Robin Dutt, who calls himself a “Situationist isolationist” and remarks, “I regard walking down the street as a lecture.”
There are scholar dandies, bartender dandies, retailer dandies, tailor dandies, barber and window dresser dandies, decadent dandies, fit-and-trim dandies and randy dandies, and most of them have something amusing and/or profound to say, often at the same time.
Some of the new dandies depicted here have studied the history of dandyism, which we can trace back to the late eighteenth century, when economic and political revolutions were in progress, with merchants and money taking power from the old standards of bloodline and land. Dandyism arose with democracy. Beau Brummell, an uncommon commoner, set the standard by adopting sober colors, ditching gilt and perfume and adopting a comparatively severe style based on the physically fit figure as well as the sort of demurring restraint that is the source of wit. A sort of “after you!” style.
Brummell, who is sometimes called the first celebrity, that is, he was famous for being famous, was the opposite of a fop. He said, “If people turn to look at you on the street you are not well dressed: but too stiff, too tight or too fashionable.” Brummell set the tone for men in London, and he took the Prince of Wales and future king into his tutelage, trying to wean him from spectacle, then fatally snubbed him on the street. In mid-career Brummell would show up at grand affairs for a few minutes to look at everyone and then leave. Before he became an exile, he gave up attending balls and was seen on the street and in the gambling club. If Brummell was a peacock, then he was one trained for the cockfight.
Last spring and summer, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum exhibition “Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion” spanned the spectrum of historical dandyism, from Brummell, Baudelaire, Byron and Wilde to Cecil Beaton and the late flamboyant Sebastian Horsley, who had special pockets in his custom suits made to accommodate hypodermic syringes. The show included such contemporary design practitioners as Thom Browne, Sruli Recht and Iké Udé. Highlights of the exhibition included examples from the wardrobes of distinguished dandies of many generations, including Richard Merkin, the late RISD alumnus and teacher, painter, illustrator, writer and pornography collector, who was perhaps the most dapper of the Esquire generation dandies, including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, et al. The show also featured an ensemble belonging to Mr. Patrick McDonald, who is a wildflower in the lapel of contemporary Manhattan.
A museum show, however well done, doesn’t make a movement, but I met the movement that goes with the show when I attended a reading held over the summer in a Soho club for the exhibition catalog. Much of New York’s burgeoning dandy subculture turned up to read texts from Whistler, Wilde, Baudelaire and others. I read a selection from the 1826 novel Granby, by Thomas Henry Lister, which features a wonderful character based directly on Lister’s contemporary Brummell.
The dandy assembly seemed all bright boys and their entourage of soigné young ladies with their own approach to fashion, more ladylike than the one might see at a fashion or art event. It was like going to a really weird prom, and that seemed right, because these dandy kids are just getting started. It’s a new school of thought, and at this school, Carrie really would be the prom queen.