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Reactionaries such as Don Cherry have often been as flamboyant in their dress as gender-transgressors have, busting the notion that dandyism is the sole domain of urban liberals.

Reactionaries such as Don Cherry have often been as flamboyant in their dress as gender-transgressors have, busting the notion that dandyism is the sole domain of urban liberals.

The rise (and falsities) of the dandy Add to ...

Fifteen years ago, a bushy beard was a sign of an eccentric, an indigent or a hippy; it signified neglect rather than attention to appearance. Now that the beard is a part of the uniform of a certain class of educated young men in urban environments (you know the rest of the uniform: glasses, plaid shirt, tattoos), it is clearly being cultivated and has therefore become, like so many signifiers of status, a competitive element. The longer and wilder one’s beard, the more downtown, the more creative, the more vaguely defiant one appears. The musician/web designer’s beard is now a statement that is neither practical nor nonchalant: It is pure fashion, and will be seen as an extreme one in 50 years’ time.

We saw this happen with giant lacquered mohawks on punks in the 1980s. We saw it with Afros in the 1970s. We saw it with tightly corseted and impossibly narrow men’s waists in the 1840s. We saw it with powdered wigs in the 1740s.

In common usage, a dandy is a flamboyant, someone whose dress is flashy or outré. When we think of contemporary dandies, we picture the sapeurs of the Congo (those men who come from poverty and disfranchisement and spend every cent of their income on hand-tailored suits in bright colours) or the steampunk enthusiasts who attend the Victorian picnic at the annual Goth festival in Leipzig, Germany solely for the purpose of displaying their velvet coats and brocaded waistcoats. We think of dandyism as essentially nostalgic, as yearning for the extravagances of the past.

But when the term was first used in the late 18th century, its objects were fiercely opposed to elaborate and frilly dress and they were forward-thinking rather than nostalgic. They were followers of the English commoner Beau Brummell, an innkeeper’s son who impressed his way into the most exclusive circles of Europe. Brummell’s contribution to the history of fashion was actually a move to sobriety and simplicity: He insisted on plain broadcloth country wear (including riding boots instead of silk hose) and shunned powder, wigs and perfume. His austere model was widely emulated and prefigured the uniform business suit of a century later.

Brummell is one of 15 of history’s most famous dandies given essay space in the lush coffee-table book Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion, just published by the art museum of the Rhode Island School of Design to coincide with its exhibition of the same name. The exhibition, a rich collection of photos, drawings and actual clothes, runs until Aug. 18.

The book, a mix of reminiscences and argument, claims a vaguely moral impetus for dandyism, a hint that its practitioners – from Baudelaire, Beerbohm and Wilde to contemporary clothiers Ouigi Theodore and Guy Hills – somehow refuse corruption in the world by insisting on aesthetic perfection in their self-presentation. The director of the museum boasts that the style-conscious students of RISD embody “the constructive urge to challenge the status quo” and the curators write that “these individuals push the definition of the clothes-wearing man into a cerebral realm.”

This has always been a tricky argument. The question of whether the dandy is a conservative or a progressive, whether his rebellious aestheticism is a defiance of political structures or a retreat into inaction, is always a slippery one. Just as many reactionaries (Evelyn Waugh, Don Cherry) have been as flamboyant in their dress as socialists or gender-transgressors have. Possibly even more.

Beau Brummell is often used as an example of the rise of the bourgeoisie into the aristocratic halls of power, and his promotion of the restrained over the excessive certainly paralleled the beginnings of democracy in Europe. (The fashion designer Thom Browne, contemporary proponent of the weird little-boy suit, makes a Brummellian statement in his preface to this book: “I see the dandy’s place in today’s fashion culture as one who promotes simplicity and uniformity in men’s fashion.”) But Brummell himself was no revolutionary: His interests were those of the existing regime, and he lived on an inheritance.

The question of politics is addressed by Monica L. Miller in a conflicted essay on hip-hop fashion and the rise of the “African American Gentlemen’s Movement,” the recent turn in mainstream hip-hop from sportswear to bespoke suits and pocket squares, as embodied by Sean Combs, Jay-Z, André Benjamin and the immaculately dressed etiquette writer Fonzworth Bentley. Their careful following of European-colonialist sartorial tradition and simultaneous embrace of large-scale corporate marketing – several hip-hop artists have turned to branding clothes – have led critics to call the new sartorial respectability a kind of softening or selling out. “With its new look,” Miller asks, “is hip-hop cleaning up or checking out?”

The answer is unclear. They certainly have lovely clothes. There are pictures of them in this lovely book.

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