The recent, predictable death of London socialite Sebastian Horsley, author of Dandy in the Underworld, proud drug addict and debauchee, was sad news for a British magazine called The Chap. Horsley had been a role model for The Chap's readers. Horsley's fame - fame that came from doing very little, really, except for dressing flamboyantly and for being proudly self-destructive and promiscuous - proved this quirky little magazine's relevance.
And now that some London youth are embracing an expensive fashion the press are calling steampunk - a style of dress that's part Goth, part Victorian explorer, part street urchin (no doubt accelerated by Guy Ritchie's film vision of Sherlock Holmes as violent superhero) - eyes are turning once again to The Chap as something more than a little nerdfest.
The magazine has been around for more than 10 years but it hasn't penetrated the North American consciousness much - except in praise from such arch and dyspeptic organs as Dandyism.net. That's because it's largely about Britishness, and about reviving a mythical kind of English gentleman.
The Chap advocates a conservative nerdiness in men: mustaches, tweeds, pipes, hip flasks. It advocates politeness and archaic social niceties and smoking; it prohibits the wearing of denim. The ideal chap would be very much like an unemployed young man of means in a P.G. Wodehouse novel; the journal revels in Edwardian terminology such as "cad" and "bounder." It is opposed to what it calls the blandness and crassness of the modern world.
Pictures of chaps tend to look exactly like the Upper Class Twits of the famous Monty Python skit - and in fact the annual Chap Olympics, which includes events like Slap The Bounder and Hop-Skip-And-Jump-Carrying-A-Gin-and-Tonic, distinctly resemble the Pythons' satirical antics. The self-deprecation is deliberate; in fact, it's hard to tell at any given point how tongue-in-cheek The Chap is.
It can be mistaken, when you first look at it, for a magazine about class privilege and snobbery. It's not; it's more about an aestheticism and pursuit of decadence that's available to all and horrifies most of the business-driven moneyed class. The Chap is known in London for organizing ironic "protests" - against contemporary art, against chain stores - that resemble Situationist happenings. They are goofy and often nonsensical. Flash mobs of chaps - dressed in tweed suits and trilby hats - have invaded McDonald's restaurants and ordered kedgeree and champagne; they have crowded into discount opticians' stores and demanded monocles. Yes, their giggly obsessions are a bit undergraduate, but their targets are the corporate empires of bland, which makes their goofiness a little more amusing.
The magazine's fashion spreads are fantastic: "Britches and Hoes," for example, featured masculine Second World War-era farmer girls, inspired by British propaganda of the time. And it actually sells, on its website, the kind of classic men's attire that I constantly get asked (in my other capacity as a fashion writer) to find for Globe and Mail readers: straw boaters, proper suspenders, badger shaving brushes, heavy safety razors and a full white-tie outfit. (This is at www.thechap.net.)
The Chap's greatest achievement, to my mind, was the creation of a dress-up party, to mark its anniversary, called the Grand Anarcho-Dandyist Ball - the name alone is inspiring, reminiscent as it is of Dadaist provocations.
One of the founders of The Chap, a guy who calls himself Gustav Temple (grandiose pseudonyms of course go with this territory), has said in interviews that anyone, regardless of class origin, can be a chap, and that their values are not materialistic. He told 3AM Magazine that his readers were mostly male and mid-30s, but that, "They usually have made the connection between such external ephemera of gentility and downright depravity and decadence. Straight from the betting shop in Hornsey to an opium den in Shanghai sort of people. At least that's the internal fantasy."
Hence the adoration for Beau Brummell and Horsley and even Sherlock Holmes (an unemployed cocaine-sniffer himself). And here's where the interesting intersection or conflict between affected conservatism and nonconformity exists. The paradox of nostalgia is that in a future-obsessed society it is iconoclastic, even radical. Here is where we see once again the old affinity between aristocratic conservatism and debauchery, and the new and more surprising slippery slope between extreme conservatism and the cutting edge of modishness - if you like, the much-shortened passage from nerd to hipster extremist that contemporary culture seems to shruggingly accept.
The proud aestheticism of The Chap demonstrates once again that fashion is a social and philosophical statement, and that a philosophy of idling - idling with the deliberate, artistic hedonism and reflectiveness of the flâneur - still has some life in it, even in an age of electrified 24-hour-a-day business communications.