Consider the Word: Elegant
Consider the word ‘elegant’ and try to conjure up a figure more refined than the 19th century English dandy. He exhibited grace and grandeur in such plentitude that he remains the definition of it, quite literally.
A quick search in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals ‘elegant’ to mean ‘A fashionable and elegant person, esp. a man; a fop or dandy.’ But what is elegance itself? A shortened definition reads, ‘with reference to appearance … freedom from awkwardness, coarseness, or clumsiness; refined tastefulness.’ The dandy was a sartorial symphony, and it is precisely for this reason, and his complete freedom from anything awkward and ungainly, that 19th century writer Thomas Carlyle gave him the backhanded compliment of ‘poet of the cloth.’ The dandy was so correct in his appearance, so exactingly tailored and tucked-in, that he permitted no flaws or disharmonies to be found in his seamless exterior. He was a perfect work of art.
Elegance, in a world of trivial conventionality and ‘basic bitches’, is a style of protest. It is a statement of self-declaration and authorship over one’s life that signals individuality, nonconformity, and even rebellion. As much as the dandy is associated with clothing, elegance does not require him to wear a costume; man and cloth blend into one harmonious being, held together not by seams or stitches, but a certain je ne sais quoi.
The dandy was so correct in his appearance, so exactingly tailored and tucked-in, that he permitted no flaws or disharmonies to be found in his seamless exterior.
If the dandy was not a gentleman by blood, as he often was not, he needed some quality to distinguish himself from others, and so he chose an ineffable one. French poet and dandy-artist Charles Baudelaire referred to this quality as the ‘aristocratic superiority of his mind.’ The trick of the dandy was that however high up in the stratosphere he seemed to exist, he was quite democratic: je ne sai quoi is but the raw material from which elegance is shaped, and anybody could master it.
The dandy’s elegance came with a strain of self-rule and indifference that bordered on stoicism, without any of the boring moral and philosophical stuff. He was a mysterious figure, allergic to the bourgeois, and unmoved by all that made other men slaves. Beautiful women did not turn his head (for love requires mess– both physical and emotional – and the dandy vehemently refused to partake), and he was beholden to no pecuniary or temporal duties. Both time and money were but objects to the dandy, and he used them as he saw fit. To be a dandy was to sip hot chocolate on a chaise lounge in a dressing gown before arriving late to the theatre to see the creme de la crème of society, only to leave before the show was finished. The night would then naturally end by gambling away all of one’s money at London’s most exclusive clubs, such as Almack’s, Brook’s, or White’s. Dandyism is louche lounging on the street while dressed to the nines with holes in one’s pocket.
When one has a monopoly on elegance, one can dictate taste. George Bryan Brummell, or Beau Brummell as he was more commonly known, enjoys the pleasure of being both the first modern celebrity and arguably the most famous dandy to ever grace the planet. Even the Prince Regent, later to become King George IV, visited his home to witness the spectacle of his toilette. To add to the Beau’s list of firsts, we could also award him the title of first influencer.
One may think of the dandy as all top hat, cravats, waistcoats, and multiple rings but Brummell redefined elegance and completely changed the idea of menswear forevermore. He opted for soberer colours and a tighter fit, favouring a Hessian boot, and trousers as opposed to knee breeches. Unfortunately, Beau Brummell died penniless and mad in France after falling out with the King (he called him fat) and squandering all of his money. Elegance is knowing when to bow out, but it is perhaps even more so committing to the performance until the bitter end which, for the dandy, meant death or debt.
To be a dandy was to sip hot chocolate on a chaise lounge in a dressing gown before arriving late to the theatre to see the creme de la crème of society, only to leave before the show was finished.
Dandyism has no rules, and it has no one defining style. What, after all, is more elegant than designing the self? Covid has been a time of reinvention for all of us and there is some evidence that we have emerged from our quarantine cocoons as elegant as the dandy himself. On the societal whole, we seem to have rethought how we want to spend our days, having had an uncomfortable reminder of our mortality. There is a reluctance to reenter offices – those man-made cages we had heretofore locked ourselves in – and re-tether ourselves to a nine-to-five workday. We took to this past summer with a vengeance, booking flights until the airlines collapsed and attending every festival, terrible musical acts be damned. It is time to take a page out of the dandy’s book and exhaust ourselves with pleasure until we are debauched and our nerves raw and enervated from overstimulation.
Beverly A Craig
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