Baudelaire once defined a Dandy as one who elevates aesthetics to a living religion. Dandyism was for him “a setting sun, like the star in the decline, it is superb, without heat and full of melancholy”. The European visibility of Dandyism began in the 1760s, when, as the story goes, Coke of Norfolk, a rich British landowner came to town dressed in riding clothes, the future Dandy’s uniform, to successfully petition King George. It was a sign that after the revolution of 1688, the fashionable no longer resided at court and much political and social influence now lay with the independently minded aristocracy in the country and town estates. The model Dandy in British society was George “Beau” Brummel. When by 1798 he took his place at the centre of the powerful, insular aristocratic world of the London town, his lively presence ushered in the age of the Dandy and he became its emblem of independence, assurance, originality, self control and refinement. He was not an aristocrat by birth, but like many Dandies of the period, his clothing and style showed aspiration and self definition. Ever unpowedered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain dark coat, he was always perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing perfectly stretched linen, freshly laundered, and with an elegantly knotted cravat. Dandies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century lacked noble blood connections and any innate characteristics of aristocracy – they were like actors living out fantasies that were never to come true and they adopted outward characteristics that aided in this public and personal deception.
These early examples of Dandyism hold a certain fascination for me – this careful and considered approach to dress and style as a tool for self definition is not something that by and large happens in our modern society in male fashion. There have been previous generations where male clothing has helped define a generation or period and been used to show ultimate male power and status– take for example the elaborate costumes on show at the 1520 Field of the Cloth of Gold, or in the late sixties and early seventies, when beautiful men could wander in skin tight jeans and paisley shirts, with long flowing hair and beards, helping to define the sexually liberalising attitude of a generation. How much does that really happen anymore? Or has the male image building fashion really taken a backseat in comparison to the ways that women dress and define themselves? Naturally there are many women and men who have never, and will never, calculate their style according to how they particularly want to present themselves. But when I see a stylish, immaculately turned out and individually dressed male, it is usually worth commenting on, whereas when it comes to stylish women, well they’re two a penny really.
My mind was unfortunately turned to Valentine’s Day this week and when forced to think back to the horror of exs past, I think of just how badly dressed the majority of them really were. My first boyfriend had a rather strange penchant for purple corduroy trousers, teamed with a black velvet jacket and a horrible black beaded necklace. Another found it a good idea to wear a boiler suit for about three weeks and call it ‘method acting’ when really it was just an excuse to constantly wear a boiler suit to school. I have had boyfriends whose clothing style ranges from the mad and hideous, to the nerdy (and not in a calculated and chic way) to the downright boring and acceptable. This may just reflect my poor taste in men, but seeing as I am a woman who puts so much careful thought into my clothes, I find it extraordinary that I have yet to find a man who is able to do the same. If there was anywhere that you might be able to find a well-turned out male, you might think that Oxford would be the place to do it. A city bubbling over with self confidence, you would assume that the same might be reflected in its dress sense. But unfortunately it does not appear so. Yes, there are undeniably men who dress well. Nice coats, nice shoes, nice shirts, nice trousers etc etc, but there are few who really are able to pull off with the same ease and elegance that individual sense of identity through fashion that so many women are able to. Many men still seem stuck in that primary school mode of wanting to look a bit like everybody else. Oscar Wilde once said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”. I would really like to know when this mindset is going to be returned to the world of male fashion. Soon I hope; there are only so many mismatched combinations of coloured jeans and t-shirts with stupid slogans on them that I can bear.
Rosa Schiller Crawhurst