The end of dandyism (I)

The end of dandyism (I)

It is a surprising paradox : people who think they see dandies everywhere often do not comprehend the meaning of the word “dandy”. Let us begin with a simple exercise. Ask your friends or colleagues to guess which historical era featured dandies. You will probably be surprised to hear that many people are convinced that dandyism was played out in the 20th century, and not before. Next, ask for a few names of people who can be called a dandy. The second experiment may convince you that the majority of people who use the word dandyism do not entirely understand its meaning. 

To be upfront, in my view dandyism is dead.

Dandyism appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, in England. Its first main figure, Beau Brummell, inspired the British, as well as French society ; but we must wait until 1830 to see the climax of this trend in Paris. The French "Belle époque" (that is to say the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th) witnesses the second main moment of this aesthetic movement, and the 1920's, which we usually refer to as the Roaring twenties or "Années folles”, will embody the concept’s last breath. We use the appellation ‘movement" only out of practicality. As a matter of fact, there has never been anything such as a community of dandies. Remember that people pegged as dandies wanted to be original, so they absolutely could not accept to look like one another. The only compromise they could accept, the only reason that would lead them to behave as a group, was the idea of standing against the mediocrity which seemed to overwhelm society.

This brings me to my second main point : dandyism appeared in a precise historical context that required specific conditions. Read Baudelaire, and the authors who wrote something on the subject. What is at stake is not only the question of elegance, but also the idea of rupture : becoming a dandy means entering resistance. It leads to imagining yourself as an aristocrat of beauty itself, while fighting against the era one lives in. 

While reading this article, you may begin to think that these considerations could apply to famous personalities of the 20th or the 21st century : but please do not fall into this trap of misconception. Living as a dandy requires the constant ability to create surprise and absolute novelty. Dandyism is not only about clothes or appearance ; it is also based on the duty of looking like an ambiguous enigma. Dandies of the past could do that. But nowadays, can we really hope to achieve anything, since the movement has been reified into a blurry notion ? Since the word itself has become a generic concept ? Further, the dandy was proud to be always where he was least expected.

To establish itself in our time, dandyism must refer to a past era. If you want to keep dandyism alive nowadays, you have to connect with a so-called golden age - whereas the real dandies referred only to themselves and avoided generalization. A dandy should never get his legitimacy or credibility by copying his predecessors (as a matter of fact, we could go as far as to say that only Brummell was an authentic dandy - since no other would have existed without him !). Enough about theory ; deconstructing the fake modern dandyism actually does not require so much effort. Let us come back to another consideration.

If you can say “original" or hint that one has “panache”, instead of saying “dandy", then don't use the latter term.  If you are talking about a suit, a tie, or any unusual accessory, don't mention dandyism. If you are facing an unconventional person, don't say "dandy". 

On the contrary, if one day you come across an idle, insolent, brilliant, provocative, haughty, graceful, sublime individual ; if he is dressed with talent, if he knows how to have great yet futile conversations, if he has a splendid taste, if spending time with him is as fascinating as frustrating ; if you are facing all these elements, only then will you know what to call that person.

Translated by Agathe Vieillard-Baron and Léon Luchart

Cover picture taken from Daniel Salvatore Schiffer's book "Le Dandysme : la création de soi"