The Evolution of the Dandies
Created | Updated Jun 24, 2017
Throughout history, people have found various ways to express themselves through their clothes and behaviour. One such group of people, known as Dandies, have existed since at least the 18th Century. Some people claim that they became extinct in the early 20th Century but others say that Dandies still exist today, albeit in a modern form. This Entry looks at some of the definitions of the term, and at the ways that the Dandy identity has evolved over time.
The origin of the word Dandy may be traced back to the 16th Century when France and Scotland were allies. In France, a play by Molière from 1668 had as its main character George Dandin, whose name was understood to indicate that he was a snob with ideas above his station in life. In Scotland, the term Jack-a-Dandy was popular from the 1750s to describe impertinent men who spent money lavishly and had a certain allure to women. By the late 18th Century, the word Dandy on its own meant a middle class person who paid more attention to their appearance than others - someone who placed importance on style rather than inner depths of personality - and who aimed to live a life of luxury like the aristocracy did.
The archetypal 18th Century Dandy was Beau Brummell. George Bryan Brummell was born in 1778, studied at Eton and spent some time in the army before resigning to live an aristocratic bachelor's lifestyle in London as a favourite of the Prince Regent. His style of dress was not flamboyant for the time, as he didn't wear wigs or makeup, but his clothing was well tailored and subtle in colour. The thing that particularly distinguished him from other men of the time, though, was that it took him more than two hours to get washed and dressed and he often changed during the day into different outfits suitable for the events he planned to attend. His attitude at events also set him apart - he was generous in providing entertainment but also aloof in his manner, which meant that many women worked hard to encourage him to notice them, and he enjoyed flirting. His aloofness was often unkindness, though - his remark 'Who is your fat friend?' to an acquaintance of the Prince Regent, in response to the Prince seemingly not noticing him, is a legendary quote. The lack of royal favour after that, combined with his lavish spending and a taste for gambling, meant that Brummell eventually fell into debt. He went into exile in France to escape the debt and lived on the generosity of his friends and a small income from the Consulate from 1816 until he died in 1840.
The notion of Dandyism was considered most thoroughly at the time by Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly in his book Du Dandysme et de Georges Brummell, 1879. He had seen Brummell in France, and became fascinated by him and his past. Barbey was a colourful character himself, and could well have been considered a Dandy even though his style of dress was much more flamboyant. However, he thought true English Dandyism was not something he as a French person could achieve, and hence he admired Brummell and his attitude so much.
Dandyism - the Next Generation
By the late 19th Century, the word Dandy had become linked to homosexuality because even though Beau Brummell had been fond of women, paying attention to one's appearance was considered to be something only suitable for women, so any men who indulged in such behaviour were assumed to be effeminate.
The 19th Century Dandy is exemplified by Oscar Wilde. His Dandy lifestyle in London, across America and in Paris, where he was famous for his wit, followed by his trial for gross indecency in 1895, cemented a connection between being a Dandy and being homosexual in people's minds. Before then, for Beau Brummell and even Oscar Wilde in his youth, the feminine hygiene habits had previously been balanced out by the masculine allure to women so opinions in that regard had been more neutral.
20th Century Dandy
Ellen Moers in 19601 decided that Max Beerbohm, the sharply-dressed author2 and caricaturist who had died in 1956, was the last Dandy, but Stan Hawkins argued in 20093 that the Dandy had not died with Beerbohm, but instead had evolved. The indulgent lifestyle and aloof attitude was still needed, but where older Dandies had aspired to aristocratic circles in order to show off their style, modern Dandies use the media as their platform.
Patrick Macnee as Steed in The Avengers is a Dandy who provided a bridge between types, with his sharp Pierre Cardin suits and well-polished manner that ensured Steed could mingle with aristocrats and politicians as well as military men, but his vehicle for showing off his style was a TV series.
In the world of pop music, the group The Kinks documented the Dandyism of the 1960s - their songs included sharp observations of Englishness and nostalgia and didn't take themselves too seriously, although they paid attention to their appearance and ensured they all looked smart on stage. They even sang a song called 'Dandy', slightly mocking the Dandy of the title, but eventually concluding that he would be alright. Similarly their song 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' mocks the people of Carnaby Street in London in their bright patterned clothes - although they were following a fashion rather than setting their own trends the song indicates that they were Dandies as they are concerned with their appearance, only buying the best and showing off at parties. The band's attitude is self-mocking at the same time as mocking the other Dandies, since, for example, the line 'I'm not the world's most masculine man but I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man' in their song 'Lola' indicates that they know that they are Dandies too.
Punk rocker Sid Vicious had a style in complete contrast to that of the refined gentleman Steed, or the Dandies of 1960s London, but in his own way he fitted the definition of a Dandy. He paid great attention to his appearance and image, with his spiked and coloured hair, and clothes ripped and remade to indicate his punk style. Also, his vicious attitude was a rebellion against the Glam Rock style that had become fashionable earlier in the 1970s, and entertained people in the same way that Beau Brummell's sharp remarks did.
Adam Ant is another example of a pop Dandy from the 1980s - with his bright coloured makeup, historical costumes and songs including 'Stand and Deliver' about a 'Dandy Highwayman' and the Dandy 'Prince Charming', entertaining people by not taking himself too seriously.
David Bowie was also a quintessential modern Dandy, reinventing himself so as to be always on the outside of the mainstream even as his career spanned the decades. He took great pride in his appearance, experimenting with costumes, makeup and hairstyles in contrast to the fashions around him. His androgynous style and ambiguous sexuality helped to increase his allure to everyone, including men and women. However, he aimed to keep his personal life private so his performances in the media were not about inner substance but instead were concerned with his crafted surface style.
The Female Dandy
As with the definition of Dandy when applied to men, there are also several definitions of the term Dandy as it can be applied to women. You might think of a female Dandy as being like Marlene Dietrich, for example, looking alluringly androgynous in a dinner suit and taking on the mantle of the male Dandy style. Alternatively, Ellen Crowell4 suggests that the style of female Dandies is exemplified by hyperfeminine garb creating a distinctive visual image alongside the attitude of being aristocratic without having the money to go with it.
So-called Dandettes were contemporaries of Beau Brummell - they generally dressed in the women's fashion of the time, or a distinctive version of it (such as Lady Cork who dressed all in white with plenty of rouge on her cheeks) but were very modern in their attitudes, hosting dinner parties and joining in conversations with the men rather than withdrawing to another room after the meal had been eaten. Another example of a female Dandy is the US author Katherine Anne Porter, who was born in 1890 but dressed like an 18th Century Southern Belle - the fact that she had her own income through her writing and married and divorced several times meant that she wasn't just a Belle but had the independence and attitude of a modern Dandy.
Models from the 1950s onwards also fit the Dandy criteria with their aloof performances on the catwalk and the importance of their appearance rather than their personality in relation to their career in public - supermodel Kate Moss is another example of a modern female Dandy. In the world of pop music, divas and gay icons count as female Dandies, such as Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Gloria Gaynor. Madonna and Lady Gaga are particularly strong examples as they craft and change their image carefully over time to appeal to as many people as possible without being mainstream, and use the media to promote their styles around the world - their image is everything, and they like to shock as well as amuse.
Dandy or Not
It is relatively easy to spot modern Dandies, as they are quite large in number, but not everyone satisfies the criteria. A key area is in rock music - the fashion is for men to have long, seemingly feminine, hairstyles and they perform on stage, but the key difference is in relation to their attitude. Rock singers such as Justin Hawkins from The Darkness may sing falsetto and show off their long hair, but Stan Hawkins argues that their attitude makes it clear that they are not rebelling against fashions in masculinity - their hair is not so immaculately coiffed and their clothes not so carefully selected, while they perform strongly on stage and leave their audience in little doubt that they are manly men. Similarly, Freddie Mercury satisfied the definition of a modern Dandy earlier on in his career, with his capes and winged shoes and androgynous sleek long hair, striving to be rock royalty, but later on his band Queen was rock royalty plus his look became more mainstream and masculine, so he was less Dandy as a result.
An English translation of Du Dandysme et de Georges Brummell is included in George Walden (2002) Who is a Dandy?, Gibson Square Books Ltd.
Dandyism.net contains transcripts of contemporary and modern articles about Dandies.