Woman is the opposite of the dandy, said Baudelaire, ‘because she is natural and vulgar’. As the curtain rises on the sartorial pantomime season, however, the liveried style of the dandy is designed to clothe an exclusively all-woman cast. Since the New Romanticism of the early Eighties, when young male club-goers with teenage spots and pints of lager looked spectacularly ludicrous in frilly shirts and velvet breeches, to elaborate furnishing fabrics made popular by Scott Crolla and Georgina Godley, through to the influence of Prince, the modern embodiment of pimp-dandy style, the gratuitous opulence of the English dandy look is one of the most irresistible, relentlessly re-worked themes in contemporary fashion history.
Like the Parisians who, when they adopted dandyism and Anglomania in 1800, were confused about precisely what they were copying, the fashion designers’ interpretation of the English dandy look is subject to a conveniently loose brief. ‘Was the dandy an understated gentleman who sprang from nowhere and established himself as the social equal of princes – like Beau Brummel? Or was he the aristocratic, horsey sportsman, as Balzac indicated in his Treatise on the Elegant Life. Was he the ‘fatal man’ of English Romanticism?’ asked Valerie Steele in her book, Paris Fashion.
For this season, Europe’s designers couldn’t make up their minds either, but some interesting historical cross-references emerged out of the confusion. Those that subscribed to the decorative extravagance afforded by brocade and lace zealously and inaccurately credited Oscar Wilde with providing most of the inspiration, while restrained dark velvet offset by ostentatious cravats at Katharine Hamnet and Karl Lagerfeld smacked of the horsey sportswoman.
The most spectacular interpretation of the dandy style for women was shown, ironically, not in England, where the style originated, but in Milan. Gianfranco Ferré’s elevated white collars and exaggerated white lapels and cuffs conveyed the essence of the dandy style but in a modern, updated way.
The neck was the focal point around which the entire look pivoted in 1800. Men wore fiercely stiffened collars and elaborately tied cravats or neckcloths. According to the satirical Brummell-inspired pamphlet, Neckclothitania (1818), the starched collars and neckcloths were the only way, in a world where male dress was a great leveller, to distinguish the upper class from lesser beings. Starch, in particular, gave the wearer ‘a look of hauteur and greatness ..the air of being puffed up with pride, vanity and conceit.. indispensable qualities for a man of fashion.’ Beau Brummell’s dressing room became a place of pilgrimage, to see the shirt collar as high as his head and the dazzling white cravats which were a foot wide.
Although dandy looks in recent fashion history have counteracted the conventionality of traditional English dress (while, ironically, often appearing stunningly literal in interpretation) – John Galliano’s Les Incroyables collection, which echoed the loose short frock coat and wide pantaloons of the cross-Channel dandy, and the influential use of rich brocade and tapestry fabrics pioneered by Crolla and Ellis Flyte – the original dandies merely took up the conventional English country house style as normal daywear.
Dandyism ushered in a new, modern city ‘uniform’ for men, and led in the direction of dress as rebellion. The popular misconception of the dandy is that he was an outrageously effete, overdressed peacock of dubious sexuality in fact it was the Macaronis who, in the 18th century gave the look a bad name. Their dress was an exaggeration of frills, brocade, powder and paint and was a reaction against all that was typically ‘English’ and traditional.
The dandies professed to be unequivocally masculine, although many people found this difficult to believe, not least Jane Austen in Emma: ‘Emma’s very good opinion of Frank Churchill was a little shaken the following day, by hearing that he was gone off to London, merely to have his hair cut.’ This was a round trip of 32 miles, which took all day by horse and carriage.
Although the idea of the dandified man continued well into the 19th century, he never lost sight of his masculinity. ‘From this time onwards,’ said Quentin Bell, ‘the merest hint of feminity in a man’s wardrobe was regarded with deep visceral aversion.’ The dandies did, however, go to great lengths to imitate a woman’s shape, wearing tight-lacing and padded trousers to give them a feminine appearance. They also used cosmetics, and were lampooned for it as the Macaronis had been 50 years before. The satirical magazine, The Ton (1819), describes a dandy’s morning toilette one of his first tasks is to make up for the day with ‘a little of the light brown and a touch of rouge’, then to be laced into his stays and to ‘try on cravats, 14 in number, until the perfect one is produced’. He perfumes himself with musk, puts ‘Huile Antique’ on his hair, and tells his tailor ‘how to pad my coat on the breast and on the shoulders, to put very thick lining and padding in the sleeves in order to give me an athletic look.’
Now, latter day male ‘dandies’ like Stephen Calloway of the V & A get labelled iredeemably eccentric and are laughed off the street. The Eighties man is still wrangling with the concept of vanity, while modern dandyism is only acceptable for women as long as it implies nothing more than fashionable decoration, although sexual ambiguity and cross-dressing is still the underlying essence of the dandy style – less comical this year than the thigh-slapping Principal Boy boots and jacket of last year, but as appropriately seasonal.
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