Good Clothes Open All Doors Essay

Let us consider the word dandyism. Some use the word as a euphemism for foppish exhibitionism. Others use it to refer to a froideur in which the affect of the subject is subsumed by a devotion to rigorously controlled and almost ascetically elegant appearance.

Dandy in a hat and scalloped coat, ca. 1780

Let us consider the word dandyism. Some use the word as a euphemism for foppish exhibitionism. Others use it to refer to a froideur in which the affect of the subject is subsumed by a devotion to rigorously controlled and almost ascetically elegant appearance.

There are ample questions posed by the two ideas. What is the purpose of men’s clothing of style, be that style extravagant or controlled? What rules govern the wearing of men’s clothing? And is the principle that informs the wild runway show of club gear the same as or different from the one that informs impeccable bespoke tailoring? And perhaps most mysteriously, what is it that a dandy adds to his clothing? For Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, whose nineteenth century treatise on Beau Brummel remains the single most important text on dandyism, wrote to Thomas Carlyle in 1845: “Dandyism is… not a suit of clothes walking about by itself! On the contrary, it is the particular way of wearing these clothes which constitutes dandyism.”

The mainstream view for most of the last century was that there was nothing attractive about evident self-consciousness in a man’s dress. Our standards of desire revolved around basics — the James Dean white T-shirt, beat-up jacket, and old Levis, or the well-pressed white shirt smelling starchily of freshness, rep tie, and classic suit (not a “reinterpretation” of the classic suit, but that suit itself). How did we come to the idea that real men shouldn’t wear fancy clothing — which reached its epitome in the 1950s — and how is it that we hve begun to move past that notion with the advent of men’s designer clothes? Anne Hollander, in Sex and Suits, writes, “There are new eyes for the gaudy old devices that once clothed male power before the modern era; the look of male sexual potency in the post-modern world is able to float free of those austere visions of masculinity that discredited any richness of fantasy.” Gilles Lipovetsky, the hip French philosopher of fashion, acknowledged a few years ago that “after a long period of exclusion marked by the conservative dark suit, men are ‘back in style.’”

A dandy in the dressing room, ca. 1900

This return to style has altered even looks that are intended to be above self-consciousness. The miner emerging from a mine may still be rather sexy to some people’s way of thinking, and the senator wearing a suit nearly identical to his father’s may still have an old-fashioned look of power, but for the rest of us, whatever we wear is deliberate, and so the inherent sexiness of unconsidered modes of dress has pretty much vanished. “We may now find,” Hollander writes, “the curious spectacle of a man privately at ease fifteen stories above the city street, sipping wine and reading Trollope in a warm room furnished with fragile antiques and Persian rugs, dressed in a costume suitable for roping cattle on the plains of sawing up lumber in the North woods.” Can such a man think that his choice is somehow above fashion? The choices have simply become too manifest. You cannot spend your life in what you haven’t chosen and aren’t wearing, and if you’ve put on jeans to achieve a look, the look you have is of having achieved a look. What then? Once carefree authenticity is gone, the doors are flung wide open.

This recent revolution in male dress owes a great deal to feminism. As women took over work that had been the province of men and men accepted a participatory role in cooking and child rearing, newly sensitive fellows began to wear facial expressions they had not worn before. By the mid-’80s, “healthy” fellows were supposed to cry and to admit fear. Men could be depressed and could talk about it. At the same time that men’s faces softened, their bodies hardened. The vanity of the physique was evidence of a compensatory hypermasculinity, and male preening was back. Maurizia Boscagli, in Eye on the Flesh, writes, “The superman wears his muscles as a suit, and the modern male body is a new costume of masculinity, a fashionable yet far reaching style in clothing.” If your face has emotion written on it and your body is a nexus of your pride, then you have become sum of deliberate and expressive parts.

But there is another piece here. In Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siécle, Rhonad K. Garelick, a scholar of the mode, argues that the idea of celebrity is rooted in dandyism and that the dandyist sensibility must reemeerge in our celebrity-oriented era. Garelick describes dandyism as “the artform of commodifying personality. It is itself the performance of a highly stylized, painstakingly constructed self; the dandy is a self-created, carefully controlled man whose goal is to create an effect, bring about an event, or provoke a reaction in others; as a movement founded against nature, dandyism prizes perpetual, artificial youth and a reified immobilized self.” This is quite a different matter from being well dressed. You may be well dressed in a pair of corduroys and a crewneck sweater. The dandy wears clothing that takes over from other manifestations of self. This clothing does what conversation might do, or what accomplishment might do, or what song or dance or gesture or glance might do. Dress has become increasingly important in a society in which other social markers have weakened. The man made by the clothes that make the man is an intensely personal, passionate collector whose habits belie his fragility.

Charles Baudelaire, by Étienne Carjat, ca. 1862

Baudelaire said that dandies were like women in their cultivation of artifice. Barbey wrote, “To appear to be is to be for Dandies.” How much does our society reward appearing even at the expense of being? A well-educated man gives the impression of having read a great many books he has never opened. A dandy gives the impression of looking better than he is: the appearance is sufficient. Roland Barthes, certainly a study in male vanity, declared, “The dandy combines the indolent and the fashionable with the pleasure of causing surprise in others while never showing any himself. He is the expert on the fleeting pleasures of the moment.”

The seventeenth century saw men’s wish for modish clothing as a reflection of their taste for constant novelty, especially sexual novelty (as opposed to women’s natural tendency toward constancy). In Restoration comedy, men’s conversation about their own clothing became a symbol for their licentiousness. “Nat that I pretend to be a beau,” says Lord Foppington in Vanburgh’s The Relapse, “but a man must endeavour to look wholesome, lest he make so nauseous a figure in the side box, the ladies should be compelled to turn their eyes upon the play.” Self-conscious label-awareness was suddenly manifest at this time as well. Sir Fopling in Etherege’s Man of Mode wears only French clothing and can tell who made each thing: “The suit? Barroy. The garniture? Le Gras. The shoes? Piccar. The periwig? Chedreux.” It sounds horribly like a social climber on the next-to-last flight of the Concorde. Men’s “novel” clothing is oriented not so much toward its effect on others and its power to seduce as toward the pleasure of change among people of insatiable appetite. “If we had the liberty,” says Marwood in The Way of the World, “we shou’d be as weary of one Set of Acquaintance… as we are of one suit.” Held as men are by the conventions that limit the number of lovers they may have, they are allowed, at least, to seek and find change constantly in their clothing, and so to live in “civilization.” But none of these men supposes that the clothing determines his fate; it is, like male promiscuity before the clap, an innocent foolish pleasure.

George Brummel

Already in 1642, however, Reverend Thomas Fuller had observed that “good clothes open all doors.” The full import of this assertion became clear only with the advent of Beau Brummell in the late eighteenth century. Brummell, our greatest exemplar of dandyism, was the son of a civil servant. Through the sheer force of his style, and without any particular wisdom or even wit, he became the closest friend of the Prince Regent and the most sought-after member of his society. He was history’s most successful arriviste. Barbey wrote that he “saw instinctively that the day of aristocracy was over and that the day of gentility had arrived.” To appear aristocratic was more important than to be aristocratic. Brummell expressed his gentility in dress. William Maginn, editor of the Regency journal Fraser’s Magazine, wrote in Brummell’s time, “There are gentlemen of two sort; the natural, and the tailor-made.” George Walden in an essay on Brummell describes the essence of classical dandyism: “the dandy’s stance of indolent superiority not just over the masses, but over all comers.” The aristocracy aspired to copy Brummell, whose “terrible independence,” Baudelaire wrote, “proclaimed a subversive disregard” for class privileges. Dandyism, in Baudelaire’s view, was “a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to break down because established on the most precious, the most indestructible faculties, on the divine gifts that neither work nor money can give.” He said, “Dandyism is the last burst of heroism in the decadent period.”

Beau Brummel insisted that one’s clothing should never attract attention; indeed, he often said that “the severest mortification which a gentleman could incur was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance.” Byron said of him that there was “a certain exquisite propriety” in his clothes, and Max Beerbohm wrote of “the utter simplicity of his attire” and “his fine scorn for accessories.” As Carter Ratcliffe notes in a recent essay, he intended the initiated to see his invisibility. Thomas Carlyle’s passionate treatise against dandyism, Sartor Resartus, said that the dandy “is a Clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.” Such a dandy wants only to be “a visual object, or a thing that will reflect rays of light. Your silver or your gold… he solicits not; simply the glance of your eyes…. [D]o but look at him, and he is contented.” Carlyle said of the dandy that “a ‘Divine Idea of Cloth’ is born with him; and this… will express itself outwardly, or wring his heart asunder with unutterable throes.” Fine clothing speaks on behalf of those who wear it; it saves the need for introductions and verbal captions. Balzac, the greatest of French dandies, wrote in 1832, “In making himself a dandy, a man becomes a piece of boudoir furniture, an extremely ingenious mannequin.” If you put enough effort into your clothing, you need not put effort into anything else. “The sense of being well dressed,” the dandy and writer Thomas Dunn English observed a hundred years ago, “gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow.”

There is an intrinsic coldness here. Maurice Barrès, the turn-of-the-century novelist and politician, wrote, “What worries me about the position of the dandy and has kept me apart from them is the disguised Puritanism, the noli me tangere — you abstract yourself from life, from its stains and failures. In the end, I prefer to roll in the mud with others.” And Cyril Connolly noted some fifty years later, “Dandyism is capitalist, for the Dandy surrounds himself with beautiful things and decorative people and remains deaf to the call of social justice. As a wit, he makes fun of seriousness, as a lyricist he exists to celebrate things as they are, not to change them.” Ratcliffe says that “the dandy’s stillness is not the rigidity of one who strains against the weight of a monolithic bourgeoisie. The dandy is not a revolutionary…. He seeks nothing, and does next to nothing… permitting none of [his] behavior to serve any purpose save the maintenance of his frozen equipoise.” “The most important relationship for the classical dandy,” Garelick writes, “is that between himself and the inanimate world. Striving to become an art object, the dandy dehumanizes himself in order to create his social spectacle.” The clothing does objectify you; it frees you from the burden of your complex reality, and gives you the pleasant grandeur of the physical art object, an amalgam of fully external metaphors.

Young Dandy, Directoire Period, ca. 1795, by Carle Vernet

Until the seventeenth century, men dressed as elaborately as possible and did not hide their vanity. The public sense of clothing as privilege for men existed in the ancient world, then reached another apotheosis in the Italian Renaissance. Glamour was glamorous for men. And then it all fell apart — like so much else — during the English Civil War. Dreary old Oliver Cromwell introduced drab dress, and Royalist Cavaliers wore fancy-dandy doublets and hose to mark their support of the Crown. During the Restoration, Charles II launched the suit, and with it the new social order; it is no coincidence, as the great innovator and Savile Row tailor Hardy Amies has pointed out, that the beheading of Charles I marked the end of both the divine right of kings and the doublet and hose.

But why was men’s self-decoration curtailed while women’s remained rich and opulent? Once more, the answer lies in politics. Women’s clothing has been essentially a French phenomenon, with all other nations copying the French model — and France excelled at decoration. Men’s dress has been English, with Anglomania appearing in France, Germany, and even Italy. The basic reasons are simple. French clothing (pre-1789) was designed for courtiers living primarily at court. Magna Carta’s democratizing effect meant that the British ruling classes spent most of their time on their own estates. When they came to court, they came on horseback and were often dressed in riding costume — which was not necessary for members of the less free French court. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Englishmen would often “come dirty” — in just what they’d worn to ride up to London — for social functions or even official occasions. The French courtiers, who envied the English their freedom, associated this pragmatism with self-determination. The age-old trappings of power — the gold of kings — came to be associated with the oppressive court and its petty intrigues, and plain clothing for men became a symbol of power. The original forms of English “dirty” dress survive in men’s fashions today: the jackets we wear in a normal suit are based on the construction of early riding coats, vented to accommodate a horse; and the reason, for example, that men’s coats and jackets button to the left is that left-closure facilitates drawing a sword with your right hand. Proust observed that the most elegant men in the world were Frenchmen who bought their clothes in England. Barbey maintains that dandyism is at base a British tendency, that Brummell could never have been born of the French system.

Ichikawa Monosuke II and Sakata Hangoro, ca. 1780

Adolf Loos, writing in 1898, observed, “The dandies in every city look different.” The same may be said of every time. Baudelaire wrote of dandies throughout history — Caesar, Catiline, and Alcibiades — and across cultures — he referred especially to American Indians done up in feathers. Japanese dandyism reached its apotheosis in iki, or Edo chic. Popular between the mid-seventeenth century and the mid-nineteenth, it was the style of pleasure-seekers. The Tokugawa shogunate’s sumptuary laws were full of loopholes, and iki was the exploitation of those loopholes, realized by those with much money but imperfect social position. Michael Dunn has described it: “The ch’nin would line their clothing, restricted by code to cotton or plain silk, with sumptuous materials. Rather than displaying the bold and brightly colored robes favored by the nobility, iki connoisseurs promoted the fashion of subdued colors and small, geometric stencil patterns that, on close inspection, were as fine as the most elaborate court costumes. Accessories imitated lowly materials with a highly skilled deployment of lacquer and inlay techniques.” The great philosopher of iki was Kuki Shūzō. He said, “Once you have set eyes on the vague traces of warm and sincere tears behind a bewitching, lightly-worn smile, you will have been able to grasp the manifestation of iki for the first time. Perhaps the resignation in iki is a mood produced by over-ripeness and decadence.” Could those words not have come from des Esseintes, the ultimate dandy of literature, who replaced Brummell’s emotional vacuity with a supercilious nostalgia and world-weary refinement?

While iki was reaching its height in Japan, dandyism bubbled up in the West. What had once been the path for a social aspirant became the province of royalty. Queen Victoria wrote irritably of the man who would be Edward VII, “Unfortunately, he took no interest in anything but clothes, and again clothes. Even when out shooting he was more occupied with his trousers than with the game.” The Duke of Windsor, the great dandy of the twentieth century, broke down the tyranny of formal dress. George V wrote to him, “From the various photographs of you which have appeared in the papers I see that you wear turn-down collars in white uniform, with collar and black ties. I wonder whose idea that was, as anything more unsmart I never saw.” Such innovation was the prerogative of royalty. The great bourgeoisie has always been excluded from the world of dandyism, for the drab suit has been their triumph.

Gilles Lipovetsky has caused a stir in the academy with The Empire of Fashion, which has assumed a sort of celebrity trendiness on American campuses. Lipovetsky proposes that clothing does not so much reflect as determine the times. He maintains that democracy required this century’s changes in fashion, which are the cause rather than the result of liberality. This radical idea of the importance of fashion has long been part of the dandyist credo. Laurence Stern once said that “the ideas of a clean-shaven man are not those of a bearded man,” and Beau Brummell said, “Actions are never anything but the consequences of our toilette.” The radical Afro-American poet Amiri Baraka said in the 1960s that “Ideology and style are the same thing.” Kemal Atatürk actually made the fez illegal in Turkey because he believed that depriving men of their funny hats would move them to industrialize. Peter the Great passed laws forcing his court into Western dress in order to bring about modernization.

Lipovetsky is not breaking new ground in suggesting that fashion is the origin of social structure. “Little remains to be said,” he writes, “about the ‘great male renunciation’ of fashion and its connection with the rise of democracy and the bourgeoisie. The neutral, austere, sober masculine costume reflected the consecration of egalitarian ideology as the conquering bourgeois ethic of thrift, merit, and work. Costly aristocratic dress, a sign of celebration and pomp, was replaced by clothing that expressed the new social values of equality, economy, and effort. Since the nineteenth century, masculinity has been defined in contradistinction to fashion, to the ephemeral and the superficial.”

With the abandonment of the suit as uniform, which is the ultimate nod from the privileged to the less privileged, men’s clothing has taken on some of the liberalism of women’s and has absorbed the idea of fantasy. “The clothing of both sexes,” Lipovetsky observes, “is attuned to the mass happiness characteristic of consumer society.” Men’s attire, which for so long “precisely embodied the opposition between hedonistic values and technocratic values that characterizes capitalist societies,” has given way to more individuated and ostentatious self-presentation. Following Lipovetsky to the logical extreme, one can say that male display is possible in a world less ambivalent than ever about capitalism and its pleasures. Taking up the themes put forward in the Restoration, one can also observe that the periods in which men have had the least freedom to dress (the Victorian, the ’50s) are those in which society has worked hardest to contain male sexual appetite; and that when men are free to indulge in the search for erotic novelty, they are also permitted some leeway for sartorial innovation. The omnipresence now of looks that were once gay — jeans that fit, boots on people who aren’t from Texas, white sneakers kept white, sweaters tucked in at the waist, not to mention color, even if it’s mostly in polo shirts — demonstrates how steadily the gay sensibility in men’s clothing has spread. The steadily expanding breadth of male self-expression through clothing since the Reagan era of the early ’80s has coincided with increasing social acceptance of the male urge to promiscuity, and especially of gay men’s pleasure in multiple partners. It is those same gay men who have multiple looks, for whom sexuality becomes a never-ending costume drama and costume a perpetual sexual game.

It would seem that in the heyday of the French court, extravagance of dress was not identified with any particular sexual orientation (though this was, of course, before the idea of an identity predicated on sexual orientation had gained currency). In the late nineteenth century, the men who wore fantastic clothing were often gay, and the clothing itself was indicative of attractions sometimes simply by its extravagance and sometimes in its particulars. During the period before the First World War, men in polite society who wore red neckties were signaling their homosexuality to one another. This connection between clothing and homosexuality, tasteful or otherwise, is not organic; it is indebted to the nineteenth-century aesthetes, and particularly to Oscar Wilde. Fashion is above all a game, and it works best when it is worn by people who are playing the game, rather than by those on whom the game is being played. Long before Pierre Cardin, Oscar Wilde staged an approximation of a men’s fashion show.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

For the opening night of Lady Windemere’s Fan, he arranged for a large number of men in the audience to wear green carnations in their lapels, and put a similar carnation in the lapel of the young male lead. “[The public] likes to be annoyed,” Wilde observed. “A young man on the stage will wear a green carnation; people will stare at it and wonder. They will then look round the house and see every here and there more and more little specks of mystic green. ‘This must be some secret symbol,’ they will say. ‘What on earth can it mean?’ ” Wilde explained this plan of action to a friend, who wondered what it did mean. “Nothing whatever,” Wilde replied, “but that is just what nobody will guess.” Wilde was one of the original fans both of subversion and of homoeroticism. Sometimes they coincided; sometimes they did not. His green carnations did have meaning; they meant that their wearers were in on the joke, and perhaps on the other transgressive jokes. Garelick writes that Wilde wanted “to co-opt his entire audience into entering a world of fetishized treasures and illicit desire.” He contrived to fascinate people with something of no substance whatsoever. That is dandyism. Cyril Connolly said in 1960, “The dandy is but the larval form of a bore.” And yet the reality is that dandyism’s cool self-assurance and visual spectacle have remained fascinating to us. Carlyle wrote, sarcastically, “May we not well cry shame on an ungrateful world, that refuses even this poor boon; that will waste its optic faculty on dried Crocodiles, and Siamese twins; and over the domestic wonderful wonder of wonders, a live Dandy, glance with hasty indifference.”

Roland Barthes has said that “reduced to a freedom to buy, dandyism could only suffocate and expire.” There was a moment when that seemed to be true, perhaps, but it has passed. Barbey declared, “Dandies are as eternal as caprice. Humanity has as much need of their attractions as of its most imposing heroes, of its most austere grandeurs. We shall never have another dandy like Brummell, but people like him, whatever weight the world gives them, we can be sure there will always be, even in England.” And, we might add, even in America.

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