What makes a dandy? In the popular imagination, the dandy is a peacock, eccentrically and eye-catchingly dressed. Nothing, however, could be further from the precepts of that original dandy Beau Brummell, who rejected the pink and blue silks of the eighteenth century in favour of a sober, well-tailored suit. “If John Bull turns round to look at you,” he declared, “you are not well dressed.”
In this erudite, wide-ranging and appropriately elegant book, the German-born writer Philip Mann examines six personalities who embody different aspects of dandyism in the 20th century: the Austrian architect Adolf Loos; Edward, Duke of Windsor; the courtier and couturier Bunny Roger; the writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp; the French film director Jean-Pierre Melville; and, somewhat surprisingly, his leather-jacketed German counterpart Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Brummel’s dandyism, Mann argues, reflected the architectural tastes of the times, as the restraint of neoclassicism replaced the extravagance of the Rococo. Just as architects such as Soane and Schinkel eschewed ornament in favour of formal harmony, Brummell discarded frills and furbelows for elegant restraint.
A century later, the architects of early Modernism sought inspiration from their neoclassical predecessors, rejecting the riot of decorative styles that characterized the Victorian era. In his 1898 essay Die Herrenmode (Men’s Fashion), Loos poured scorn on “the poetaster, the Sunday painter and the minor architect” who paraded themselves in “velvet collars, aesthetic trouser fabrics and Secessionist neckties”, whereas “the great poet, the great painter, the great architect” dressed with sober restraint.
With his successful architectural practice, Loos was a rare exception: dandyism is seldom compatible with gainful employment. “A dandy,” Carlyle observed in Sartor Resartus (1831), “Is a clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes.” Brummell inherited – and ran through – a fortune; Crisp subsisted on unemployment benefit until he found his métier as an artists’ model; the Duke of Windsor was the Duke of Windsor.
Not all of Mann’s subjects adhered to Brummell’s sartorial austerity. The duke was partial to loud checks; Quentin Crisp to chiffon scarves and mascara; while Fassbinder “was to invest a great deal of thought, energy and money in order to achieve his unkempt appearance”.
In their different ways, they reflect the adaptation of dandyism to the challenges of the twentieth century. Democracy and mass production were inherently inimical to the individualism of the dandy. During his time in the United States, Loos admired its flourishing ready-to-wear industry, but doggedly continued to dress in bespoke Savile Row suits. By the 1960s, dandyism, once in the vanguard of the modern, had a decidedly anachronistic air. “It is neither easy nor pleasant to constantly be the last dandy,” wrote Bunny Roger. “I can’t take the Underground; I’d feel slightly ridiculous . . . Someone who dresses like I do really needs a valet to help him into an ancient car with a ball horn . . .” Quentin Crisp was disconcerted to find that his once outrageous garb was now all the fashion, so that he “inadvertently gave the impression of trying to gatecrash a King’s Road party for people two generations younger”.
The dusk of the title is not only temporal, however, but spiritual. For Mann, the dandy is ultimately a tragic figure. Brummell suffered from “blue devils”, and both he and Loos spent the end of their lives in mental asylums; the Duke of Windsor suffered bouts of depression; and Fassbinder died at thirty-seven after years of heavy drug-taking. The melancholy of dandyism lies in its existential dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and its search for an unattainable perfection. It is, in short, “a gilded mask over the horrors of the void”.
C. J. Schüler is a freelance writer, journalist and cultural historian specialising in European fiction in translation, travel and the arts. His writing has appeared in The Independent, the Financial Times, The Tablet and the New Statesman. Notes in the Margin is his blog about books. His most recent book is Writers, Lovers, Soldiers, Spies: A History of the Authors’ Club of London, 1891–2016 (Authors’ Club, £19.99), reviewed by The BookBlast® Diary.
The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century by Philip Mann | Head of Zeus | October 2017 £25 370pp HB illus.| ISBN: 9781786695178 | kindle ASIN: B06XGTXGVV £6.99
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