The Return of the Dandy

Dandy 2Nicola here. According to the newspapers there is a new breed of man
about town (whether that town is somewhere in Europe, the USA or Australasia.)
He is the dandy, discerning and well informed on fashionable style trends,
historical influences and the art of dressing. These men are devoted to matters
sartorial and they spend a lot of money on their clothes, several thousand pounds or dollars per
month. Selfridges in London has recently opened the world’s largest men’s shoe
department. Harvey Nichols, the designer department store, say that their male
customers spend 25% more on clothes than their female ones. Style icons like
David Beckham have made it acceptable for men to express themselves through
their style and their grooming. For these men, dress is a form of
self-expression, often as flamboyant as possible. And of course this is nothing

Origins and definitions

My OED has the word “dandy” first coming into use in the
1780s to describe a man
David Beckham who paid meticulous attention to his dress. It was
based on the earlier phrase “Jack ‘O Dandy.” Dandyism as a style was coined in
about 1820. Previously there had been fops, a term which originated in the 15th
century and implied someone who was a bit of a fool as well as being overdressed. The word “beau” also came
to be used to describe a rich, fashionable young man who was elegant in his
dress. Then there were the macaronis who took style to extremes and were
considered to exceed what was elegant and fashionable and tumble over into the

These days the term dandy has a certain effeminate
connotation but in the late 18th and 19th centuries it
had a far more masculine meaning. The dandy was not simply someone who was
interested in clothes. Dandyism was a lifestyle. It included refinement in
manners, a certain nonchalance and possibly an interest in gentlemanly pursuits
such as prize fighting. The dandy was urbane and elegant but he was also very
masculine. One of the dandies of the late 18th century was William Hopper, a
man who rejected a career in the church to become a gentleman pugilist. He was
known as “The Swell Bristolian,” swell of course being Regency cant for someone
who was wealthy and elegant. Captain Barclay, another dandy, was one of the
most celebrated athletes of his generation.

The King of the Dandies

DandiesThe quintessential dandy, of course, was Beau Brummell. He
became a leader of society. Brummell attended Eton, where he first drew
attention to himself by going against the wisdom of the day in declaring
cricket “foolish.” This view was sufficiently odd and original to establish him
as a wit and he was invited to all the best parties. Brummell was also an
arbiter of taste and fashion in books and furnishings as well as clothes. He
was a collector of china, snuffboxes and canes. His exquisite manners were part
of his appeal and when it came to clothes he designed them himself and made
sure they were well cut. Two of his maxims were “no one should ever take your
suit for new” and “always clean linen and plenty of it.”

Dandyism as practised by Brummell and his fellows was as
much to do with manner as dress. One of the observations made of Brummell was
that he matched the understated elegance of his clothes with the cool
understatement of his speech. He never showed emotion.

Despite the masculine connotations of dandyism, not everyone
admired it. One observer described the dandies in St James in less than
flattering terms: “Well-groomed but pompous, parading daily between Crockford’s
(gambling palace) and White’s Club, up one side and down the other.” This
promenade often took place in order to establish one’s status as a gentleman
and persuade tradesmen to grant credit.

There were also many caricatures of the dandy as a
ridiculous character in the contemporary cartoons. A satirical booklet of the
era mocked the many and varied ways in which one could tie a neck cloth whilst
“An Exquisite’s Diary” made fun of the trials and tribulations of being a
Dandy. Captain Gronow was vitriolic about them, criticising them as
“unspeakably odious… with nothing remarkable about them but their insolence…
They hated everybody and abused everybody…”

Literary Dandies

One of the most famous literary dandies is of course The
Scarlet Pimpernel. No one could be cooler
Scarlet Pimpernel under pressure, busy adjusting the
set of his coat at the same time as fighting off an attack by twenty
Frenchmen. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the ultimate swashbuckling hero and his
dandyism is an integral part of his disguise but at the same time he genuinely
does care about his appearance. And of course his wit and sangfroid is
legendary. There are also a number of dandies in Georgette Heyer’s books too; interestingly some are the true dandies such as The Earl of Worth in
Regency Buck who is a member of Beau Brummell’s set. Others take their
fashions to extremes and are figures of fun.

Ryan goslingAt the end of the Victorian era dandyism experienced a
resurgence in popularity with adherents such as Oscar Wilde. The current trend
seems to be mainly focussed on clothing; it would be good to see other aspects
of dandyism such as wit and especially beautiful manners making a comeback too!

Do you have a favourite historical or a fictional dandy? Or
is there a current day style icon you think is a dandy?