Nicola here. According to the newspapers there is a new breed of man about town (whether that town is somewhere in Europe, the USA or Australasia.) He is the dandy, discerning and well informed on fashionable style trends, historical influences and the art of dressing. These men are devoted to matters sartorial and they spend a lot of money on their clothes, several thousand pounds or dollars per month. Selfridges in London has recently opened the world’s largest men’s shoe department. Harvey Nichols, the designer department store, say that their male customers spend 25% more on clothes than their female ones. Style icons like David Beckham have made it acceptable for men to express themselves through their style and their grooming. For these men, dress is a form of self-expression, often as flamboyant as possible. And of course this is nothing new.
Origins and definitions
My OED has the word “dandy” first coming into use in the 1780s to describe a man who paid meticulous attention to his dress. It was based on the earlier phrase “Jack ‘O Dandy.” Dandyism as a style was coined in about 1820. Previously there had been fops, a term which originated in the 15th century and implied someone who was a bit of a fool as well as being overdressed. The word “beau” also came to be used to describe a rich, fashionable young man who was elegant in his dress. Then there were the macaronis who took style to extremes and were considered to exceed what was elegant and fashionable and tumble over into the outlandish.
These days the term dandy has a certain effeminate connotation but in the late 18th and 19th centuries it had a far more masculine meaning. The dandy was not simply someone who was interested in clothes. Dandyism was a lifestyle. It included refinement in manners, a certain nonchalance and possibly an interest in gentlemanly pursuits such as prize fighting. The dandy was urbane and elegant but he was also very masculine. One of the dandies of the late 18th century was William Hopper, a man who rejected a career in the church to become a gentleman pugilist. He was known as “The Swell Bristolian,” swell of course being Regency cant for someone who was wealthy and elegant. Captain Barclay, another dandy, was one of the most celebrated athletes of his generation.
The King of the Dandies
The quintessential dandy, of course, was Beau Brummell. He became a leader of society. Brummell attended Eton, where he first drew attention to himself by going against the wisdom of the day in declaring cricket “foolish.” This view was sufficiently odd and original to establish him as a wit and he was invited to all the best parties. Brummell was also an arbiter of taste and fashion in books and furnishings as well as clothes. He was a collector of china, snuffboxes and canes. His exquisite manners were part of his appeal and when it came to clothes he designed them himself and made sure they were well cut. Two of his maxims were “no one should ever take your suit for new” and “always clean linen and plenty of it.”
Dandyism as practised by Brummell and his fellows was as much to do with manner as dress. One of the observations made of Brummell was that he matched the understated elegance of his clothes with the cool understatement of his speech. He never showed emotion.
Despite the masculine connotations of dandyism, not everyone admired it. One observer described the dandies in St James in less than flattering terms: “Well-groomed but pompous, parading daily between Crockford’s (gambling palace) and White’s Club, up one side and down the other.” This promenade often took place in order to establish one’s status as a gentleman and persuade tradesmen to grant credit.
There were also many caricatures of the dandy as a ridiculous character in the contemporary cartoons. A satirical booklet of the era mocked the many and varied ways in which one could tie a neck cloth whilst “An Exquisite’s Diary” made fun of the trials and tribulations of being a Dandy. Captain Gronow was vitriolic about them, criticising them as “unspeakably odious… with nothing remarkable about them but their insolence… They hated everybody and abused everybody…”
One of the most famous literary dandies is of course The Scarlet Pimpernel. No one could be cooler under pressure, busy adjusting the set of his coat at the same time as fighting off an attack by twenty Frenchmen. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the ultimate swashbuckling hero and his dandyism is an integral part of his disguise but at the same time he genuinely does care about his appearance. And of course his wit and sangfroid is legendary. There are also a number of dandies in Georgette Heyer’s books too; interestingly some are the true dandies such as The Earl of Worth in Regency Buck who is a member of Beau Brummell’s set. Others take their fashions to extremes and are figures of fun.
At the end of the Victorian era dandyism experienced a resurgence in popularity with adherents such as Oscar Wilde. The current trend seems to be mainly focussed on clothing; it would be good to see other aspects of dandyism such as wit and especially beautiful manners making a comeback too!
Do you have a favourite historical or a fictional dandy? Or is there a current day style icon you think is a dandy?