So, I may be slightly off-topic this week, in-so-much as I’m not writing about writing exactly, but I was inspired by yet another article I found at the excellent arts and culture site aeon.co.
In Why the Dandy is a Subversive Work of Public Art, Oxford scholar Tara Isabella Burton argues that the Dandy figure is so much more than a self-absorbed fop. She posits instead that he is, (and I’m using the masculine here only for historical purposes), a rather subversive character. Of course, while reading Tara’s piece, one of the most famous Dandies in history immediately sprung to mind; writer and arts critic Oscar Wilde. Now, as history bore out, Mr. Wilde had issues, and his proclivity for wearing fancy clothes and acting pretentiously was neatly packaged into society’s ‘homosexual’ box well before the end of his writing career. But just labeling him as queer does him such a disservice. Wilde, like many other Dandies of note, worked hard to create his persona.
Dandies were, first and foremost performance artists. While not all were as talented as Wilde, they all wanted to make a statement. As Burton says, they wanted to “resist becoming part of la foule: the crowd.” The way they differentiated themselves was using attire, accoutrements (supposedly Dandy poet Gerard de Neval walked a pet lobster on a leash), and above all attitude. There is something to be said for the person who, when asked what he had to declare by US customs, said “I have nothing to declare except my genius!”
Is it possible Oscar Wilde and the other Dandies that went before and since were really so self-absorbed? Of course, they have to be on some level. But they also may be the greatest satirists of their time. Again, I defer to Burton, who suggests a Dandy’s refusal to be defined is a way of rejecting modern consumerism. Being unique adds value, and Dandies are willing to pay the price of being stereotyped as effete and/or effeminate if need be.
Although there are men (and women) who are re-embracing conventional Dandyism (isn’t that an oxymoron?) today, especially the 1920s metamorphosis à la The Great Gatsby, there have been some notable Dandies, both male and female, who have pushed the boundaries far beyond consumerist uniformity. Just like the original Dandies of the 19th Century, and ironically equally as androgynous, the likes of Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Lady Gaga have stepped outside the bounds of normalcy to shock the collective for art’s sake. In a world of mass production and uniformity, Dandies have, regardless of the era in which they lived, been true aesthetes – in the best or worst sense, depending upon your perspective.
I have to give a special call-out to the remarkable photograph I’m using this week shot by Brookyln-based photographer and Dandyism aficionado Rose Callahan. Rose took the photos for two books on the subject, and has traveled the world to photograph men who invest significant time and resources to living the Dandy life. Check out her books We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman around the World and I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman.
(Note: While writing this I came across a wonderful website Oscar Wilde In America, which makes a valid argument that the quote “I have nothing to declare except my genius!” is misattributed to Wilde and probably originated before his time.)