The Dandy - Let us be Elegant or Die!

If you are looking to understand the genesis and lineage of the dandy tradition, then you might consider Ellen Moers' classic inquiry from 1960: The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm.

The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm

Beau Brummel — pictured below as played by John Barrymore in the 1924 film biography — was the original Regency 'Jack-a-Dandy', who created a style in reaction to the effete, elaborately dressed fops of the Macaroni Club. Beau Brummel sought simplicity in dress, but with absolute attention to detail, taking excessive time at his toilette. He would spend two hours each morning on his appearance, obsessively cleaning and shaving.
Dressing with restraint
He would then dress with his famous self-imposed 'restraint, naturalness and simplicity' in clothes of buff, white, black and blue, using fabrics of wool, linen and leather (and eschewing elaborate silks, satin and laces). Under his influence, the Prince Regent adopted the Brummel look and London tailors moved lock-step with his sartorial decisions. He defined a template for the modern trouser suit and ushered in a mode and palette for business dress that reverberates to this day.

Ellen describes in her book Brummel's influence on the likes of Count D'Orsay, and uses literature and accounts from the time to explain how the idea of dandyism grew as a 'social and even political phenomenon'. And how it invited mockery and caricaturing in the process.

I read reviews that say the book is dry and academic. I found it quite the opposite, scholarly but an entertaining read — though you need to understand a smattering of French.

Where Are We Now?

The golden age of the dandy was swiftly interrupted by the onset of modernity, creating conditions not suited for the dandy to thrive.
London vulgarised
Ellen ends her book at the start of the twentieth century. Satirist and dandy Sir Max Beerbohm (below) is preparing to leave a London that had lost the 'demure poetry about her'. He is fleeing to Italy, away from a London that was being 'cosmopolitanised, democratised, commercialised, mechanised, standardised, vulgarised...'  — He should see it now! — and the 'unlovely things' that made it impossible, as Baudelaire wrote of dandies, to 'be sublime, without interruption'.

The twentieth-century wasn't completely the age of the 'earnest fellow' (and scruffbag). Chaps were still prepared to rack up large expenses along Savile Row; but in terms of dress, if not lifestyle, for examples of the contemporary dandy we might be looking in the wrong places. Sebastian Horsley (top) and Patrick MacDonald, often cited as exemplars of the dandy tradition, are perhaps more fabulous fop than dandy, though the line can blur.
Too tight, too fashionable
Dressing as a dandy was never about attention seeking. It was about getting the details right. Beau Brummel: 'If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.'

If Beau started a movement that took a back-to-basics approach to Frenchified excesses in dress, applying a uniform style, then the regimented look of the neo-Edwardians of the fifties, such as Bunny Roger (below), and the Teddy Boys attempted something similar.

Similar, too, were the working-class skinheads and mods of the sixties, with their obsessive attention to detail — mods agonising over the depth of their button-down collars, skinheads the folds of the pocket squares in their Crombie coats. They were wearing uniforms dictated by unwritten rules, not costumes. For skinheads, their puritanical look was a sharp reaction to the baroque scruffiness of foppish hippies.

Where are we now? When it can be claimed that the counter-culture of today is where we find the smart and the reserved — reacting to the slouchy sportswear under-dressing of the modern male in much the same way that Beau's dandies reacted to the over-dressing of the Georgian fop — the dandy remains a rebel, as he always has been.


  1. An expansive post, Tweedy, highlighting a living tradition. Can I recommend to your readers Ian Kelly's book on Beau Brummell? Ian Kelly, by the way, also wrote a great book on Antonin Careme: another cravat wearer.

    1. Thanks Bertie. I've read some excellent reviews of both recommendations. Ian Kelly also has a book on Casanova, who was more famous for being undressed. Best wishes, Tweedy


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