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?

Aske Hall

Here's Jo, talking about Aske Hall in Yorkshire. I have a particular reason, which I'll explain at the end.

There are, of course, gentry and aristocratic homes all over England and most don't come to our attention unless something special crops up. This is especially true when the house isn't open to the public, as is the case with Aske Hall.

There's an extensive article on the history of the house here so I won't go into it, but it's interesting that the original was constructed in the 1760s, the time of my Georgian romances, so parts represent a typical Georgian country house, even if it has undergone substantial changes. What's more, it illustrates one type of Georgian landowner.


To begin with, the man who built this house was a self-made man. "The son of an Edinburgh Baillie, Dundas was educated at the High School. He made his fortune through stock speculation and by provisioning the British army, under the Duke of Cumberland, during their campaign against the Jacobites (1745-6) and in Flanders during the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763). Dundas was created a Baronet in 1762.



Of course he then wanted a country seat, and bought the Aske Estate.

This picture is of  Sir Lawrence Dundas at Aske Hall with his daughter.

This is from the Aske Hall site above.

"Sir Lawrence Dundas Bt. (that means  baronet, an inheritable knighthood) bought the Aske Estate from Lord Holderness in 1763 for £45,000 and the imposing Hall has remained the family seat ever since. Sir Lawrence was a hugely ambitious and successful man and one of the reasons he bought Aske was that the estate included the pocket borough of Richmond and he was therefore able to nominate the MP."

(A pocket borough was one that was in someone's pocket — ie he got to dictate who became the MP. This was a very common situation before Parliamentary reform in the 19th century. I'm sure Rothgar has a pocket-full of them.)

"He subsequently branched out into banking, property (he developed Grangemouth in 1777) and was a major backer of the Forth & Clyde Canal."

Then we can see how the family rises.

Sir Lawrence, the baillie's son (1712-1781) never managed to become a peer, but his son Dundas

Thomas(1741 to 1820) made an excellent marriage to Lady Charlotte FitzWilliam,  daughter of the 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam, and that moved the family up the social scale a few more steps. The marriage took place in 1764, as Thomas's father was building Aske Hall, and Thomas was already living the part as we can see from this portrait — the very image of a Georgian gentleman enjoying the obligatory Grand Tour. 

In 1794 Thomas became Baron Dundas of Aske — ie Lord Dundas.

He was succeeded by his eldest son Lawrence (1766-1839) who became second Lord Dundas at the age of 56. In return for providing financial assistance to the Duke & Duchess of Kent,  the future Queen Victoria's parents,  Lawrence was created the 1st Earl of Zetland in 1838. In 1892, the title became a marquessate.

There's another page about the family here.

So now, my connection to all this. Very slight, I assure you!

In the 1930s, my father in law was a mechanic/chaffeur at Aske Hall, and we have the photographs to prove it. He didn't talk much about it, and we weren't sensible enough to question him. (Note to all, get your elderly relatives to talk about their lives, if possibly recording it. You never know when you'll want to know, and even everyday lives have historical interest.)

Because of this, we drove to it a few years back, and it's admirably accessible. One can drive close to the house and there's a public footpath through the part that runs close to the house. Now we've taken the advantage of one of the rare open days to visit and learn more. It is a fascinating house still with many Georgian interiors, including a room designed by Capability Brown. I learned something there. I wasn't aware he did anything other than gardens and landscapes.

IMG_3837  There is also a portrait of a quite handsome young man that turned out to be, no less, the future Prince Regent when her was still good looking enough to be called "Florizel."

My next book will be An Unwilling Countess (March 2011), set in Yorkshire. I decided to base Keynings, the hero's home, on Aske Hall.Of course, Aske Hall has changed since 1765, and by the time I'd finished meddling it's a different place in a slightly different location, but that was the seed of it.

Does anything about this family history surprise you? Does this picture of 18th century life fit the world of historical fiction? I find that often the self-made hero is portrayed as slightly coarse and perhaps even proud of it and disdainful of the rich and titled, whereas Sir Lawrence appears to have had good taste and certainly made every attempt to fit in with the aristocratic world — and suceeded.