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Sunday mornings often find me quietly strolling through the past, admiring the patina of old furniture in an antiques shop, and daydreaming about the family that might have sat at some dining room table, or the woman who might have dressed for balls before a Victorian vanity.

Then I’ll come across a malacca cane, tarnished at the handle, or maybe an Edwardian waistcoat resting proud but inanimate, like a fossil from a distant era. And again I’ll wonder, “Who might have brought this to life? Perhaps someone whose sole occupation was elegance?”

Long ago there was a rare breed of man, part gentleman and part fop, classified as “dandy.” Though similar men exist today, for the most part dandies, like dinosaurs, those other great rulers of the earth, are dead and deeply buried, proving the old saying that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

So let’s dig for bones.

In the beginning God created Brummell. One of history’s great nonconformists, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell was the son of a middle-class secretary who had no specific occupation, great fortune, nor claim to fame. But since what really matters is never what you know but who you know, Brummell made friends at Oxford with the Prince Regent George IV, who promptly took Brummell to the apex of high society, where any other mortal would have suffered altitude sickness. Soon the Beau created a horde of sycophants who copied his cool manners and faultless attire, while distilling a magic elixir throughout London drawing rooms.

What were its ingredients? In a society liberated by affluence but chained by propriety, Brummell filled the immensely important function of alleviating boredom. He did this through the supernatural recipe of mordant wit, a kind of polite impudence, and a simple, sober wardrobe.

So contrary to the word’s connotations today, a “dandy” is not a wearer of ostentatious clothing. Brummell’s distinction lay in the subtle, almost subliminal conveyance of a style that was at once the repudiation of all styles. It was the cut and cloth of his suits, the shine on his boots, and above all the perfect knot of his cravat that men admired and sought to emulate.

Brummell’s best biographer is the eloquent Barbey d’Aurevilly, a Catholic royalist who chronicled his humble hero’s divine ascension while offering a philosophical appraisal of the dandy personality in his 1847 tome “Of Dandyism And George Brummell.” Barbey held the Englishman in the highest esteem, insisting that “his beauty was intellectual” and that his physical appearance bore all the marks of mind triumphing proudly over matter. His analysis of the dandy soul — for a dandy is far from merely a gilded shell — is written with an unmistakably transcendental vocabulary. All the intangible aspects of the dandy, which diffuse like a fog and shroud him in mystery, are what interest Barbey, and find their consecration in the metaphysical language he employs. Barbey concludes that the cold elegance, blasé mien, and calm exterior revealing strength all contribute to a resolute character basking in the refined tranquility of a kind of sartorial Nirvana.

But with dandyism, a form of role-playing in which the dandy is simultaneously actor, director and audience, there is a stark difference between appearance and reality. Dandyism is a mask which often conceals an ineffable frown. The melancholy poet Charles Baudelaire tried to give dandyism a heroic quality, seeing it as a way of imposing order and beauty upon a chaotic and ugly world. Furthermore, he felt that as artists and intellectuals found themselves increasingly ostracized in an industrial, democratic and middle-class culture, they should cultivate visual distinction through dress and behavior to express their singular position in society. Like a religious follower, the dandy lives by commandments, the difference being that his are self-imposed.

While originally intended as the remedy for elaborate dress, like any other creed dandyism changed with the times. The somber adornment advised by Baudelaire and Barbey became the status quo a generation later, and the compulsion to rebel against environment, innate in the dandy temperament, gave birth to wanton flamboyance during the turbulent years of the fin de siecle, producing as its prime exponent the wistful and witty Wilde.

With Oscar Wilde and his omnipresent green carnation, it was inevitable that his occupation as comic playwright should add a theatrical element to his dandyism, which was just one of the flowers that blossomed on his garden of Aestheticism, which sought to settle once and for all that life should imitate art and not the reverse. Wilde veered the fraternity away from a cold doctrine and more toward a flickering art form.

While the luminous torch of dandyism was not passed on, no longer dazzling us with is Apollonian rays, occasionally a modern man bears a kitchen match that sheds some light on the subject. Prince Charles is a good example. Though far too good-natured to be a true dandy, Charles has inherited the iron reserve of Brummell, the fine tailoring of the Duke of Windsor, and a deep love of solitude. He even has a flair for public displays of dandyism. While giving a speech in Australia in 1994, someone rushed to the stage firing a gun (it later turned out to be a starter pistol). The Prince stepped calmly aside and adjusted his cufflinks, one of the most dandyish gestures of the twentieth century. Finally, despite the trumpets of pomp and circumstance that sometimes summon him to royal duty, the elegant and unhappy Charles has the ideal dandy position of having no real job.

All in all, dandyism was the only way for a man under an aristocracy to rise from humble origins, just as today it’s the only path left in a democracy to prove that at least a few qualities, such as self-mastery and the instinct for elegance, are bestowed to the privileged few at birth. It remains a rare shroud into which certain individuals, weary of the status quo and who are neither leaders nor followers, will seek solace. An institute of higher initiation, dandyism teaches us the irrefutable lesson that although all men are created equal, they certainly don’t remain so for long. A few brave spirits will always break through social barriers in the quest for immortality.

It would be wrong to see this as just a frivolous stroll through a snobbish realm of social history, since the daydreams evoked by history are often as important as history itself. Perhaps even more so, since in order for the past to survive, it must bewitch the minds of the living, and the ghosts of yesteryear have a way of haunting the most innocent patrons of antiques shops.

“For the dead still speak,” as a dead man tells us.

From Cochran’s Art, Antiques & Collectibles
November, 1995

 

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