Dandyism, a modern illusion ? (II)

Dandyism, a modern illusion ? (II)

We recently published a paper about the semantics associated with dandyism. We would like to add some historical material to our research about this notion.

The figure of the dandy is a familiar silhouette on social media, while he invades the columns of fashion magazines, or is frequently mentioned whenever an artist gives an interview. Although, as soon as you take a closer look at these evocations, you cannot help but notice a paradox, which needs to be deepened.

Back to the beginning

Dandyism historically refers to contrasting attitudes of various forms, which I will attempt to explain. To take into account the complexity of this social phenomenon, we have to go back to 19th-century England : it is indeed with Beau Brummell that such an important trend emerges. However, once Brummell’s historical landmark of dandyism is confirmed, which figure should we turn our eyes towards next ? This is where the paradox starts. Everyone agrees about the existence of dandyism in the 19th-century, although, if you take a closer look, no authentic successor of the first dandy is to be found, except later Oscar Wilde. Some people even perceive that Brummell has been the only accomplished dandy.

Etching of Beau Brummell by John Cook, published by Richard Bentley
Oscar Wilde by the photographic studio of Alfred Ellis and Lucien Waléry

This intellectual gap - between the common idea of a 19th-century loaded with dandies and dandyism, and the theory implying Brummell and Wilde were the only real dandies leaves us with a mental paradox that is both amusing and disconcerting. But how has this popular and picturesque imagery of dandyism been built ?

At this point we may introduce Byron, who is often identified as Brummell’s direct heir; but let there be no mistake, such an attribution to Byron is in itself an approximation. Almost nothing in this romantic poet’s attitude could allow us to find, in his personality, an echo of Brummell. Byron’s eccentricity leads us to consider him as standing apart, a star that could shine in the sky of dandyism, but peripherally.

Who was Brummell ? A singularly cold being, whose gesture was mechanical, and whose wit was bitter. He had made his own life a system of perpetual motion, vacant and inhuman, whose very purpose was to provoke admiration and surprise. Some would wonder about the existence of his heart, for his existence seemed deprived of any passion. Insensitive to anger, as a perfect master of the emotions he kept secret, Brummell brilliantly managed to become a point of reference in high society while he confined his existence to tie knots, and scathing aphorisms. Pride, envy, ambition ? He never experienced them. He even jeopardized the social and financial situation his relatives managed to provide him, only motivated by his taste for paradox and provocation. Irreverent and seemly, despicable though admirable, so lived Brummell : a man who both fascinated and disrupted his contemporaries. Let us face it : this is not what we bear in mind when we talk about dandyism. 

The two faces of dandyism

What do we have to examine then ? Dandyism as a way of life which arrived in France in the midst of Anglomania during the time of the Restauration - after 1815. Modest at first, the concept of dandyism slowly penetrated the morals and habits of the country. The first French dandies did not only reproduce the English model : they had to appropriate it, while reinventing it. This is where the myth takes place : as if it was natural for them, Balzac, Musset, d’Orsay, Barbey, Baudelaire set themselves apart as dandies but created their own conception of dandyism.

Honoré de Balzac by Louis-Auguste Bisson
Portrait of Alfred d’Orsay published by James Fraser
Portrait of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly by Emile Lévy
Picture of Charles Baudelaire by Nadar

We can then identify a possible repartition of dandyism between two major “families” : on one side, English dandyism as an authentic representation of the very essence of the concept. On the other side, French dandyism, a sort of fanciful reinvention of the English model, nearly annihilating its predecessor in the process, by imposing a more joyful and lively meaning. French dandyism is, as a matter of fact, exuberant craziness : these men wore vivid colors, while Brummell only swore by austerity. Obscene gestures, ridiculous and empty words, bewildering rituals and habits… French dandies were brazen and bold, and sought difficulties with a determined desire to shock ; they even pretended being able to repress their human passions, but never seemed to equal the level of Brummell’s asceticism. The figure of the “lion” (which refers to a more elegant and polite version of the dandy in French), superseding the dandy in the 1840s, breaks up with the image of provocation, and re-engages with the old ideal of the courtier.

However, this is what collective imagination bears in mind : not Brummell’s dandyism, phlegmatic, cold, implacable, worrying, but boldness, assumed ridiculous, excessive coquetry. The french dandy does not disturb anyone anymore : he is now a figure surprising at best, frequently seen as amusing. He does not provoke concern or fear, to our mind. He is only an example of flamboyant narcissism, selfishness with a touch of fantasy. The aforementioned characterization arouses the question : what is the sincere nature of elegance ? You, the reader, must draw your own conclusions.

Cover : Oscar Wilde by the photographic studio of Alfred Ellis and Lucien Waléry