You could really be a Beau Brummell, baby, if you just give it half a chance.
—Billy Joel, “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me”
There’s a sartorial civil war brewing. Lines are being drawn and sides taken in the battle over who has earned the right to call themselves a dandy. It’s a West Coast–East Coast fight this time around, and here in Los Angeles, the unlikeliest-seeming of dandy towns, we have two self-described “orthodox dandies,” dutifully upholding the 200-year tradition through their Web site, Dandyism.net. Perhaps more significantly, Christian M. Chensvold and Michael Mattis are working to protect dandyism from dandy poseurs (never mind that some poseurs might in fact be dandies in another context).
And who do to Chensvold and Mattis — a surfer and a snowboarder, respectively, by the way — accuse as dandy pretenders? No less than Andy Warhol, Noel Coward and even Oscar Wilde, whose fluttering about with a lily in his pocket and quip on his tongue apparently holds no sway with these two.
“It’s cool to be an artist, but don’t call yourself a dandy — you’re using the wrong word,” Mattis insists. “Essentially it’s an East Coast–West Coast thing.” He explains that the East Coast definition of a dandy is more about artistic expression and rebellion. It’s Bohemianism, not dandyism.
Instead, Chensvold and Mattis look to the godfather of dandyism, Beau Brummell, for inspiration. At the start of the 18th century, Brummell was the man about town in Regency England. He is credited as the creator of the suit-and-tie combo, and was the style arbiter and a gambling enabler to his friend George IV, who just happened to be England’s Prince Regent and future king. Brummell bragged about taking five hours to dress himself, wore no wigs or powder, was always clean shaven and bathed, donned a simple navy coat and ascot, and claimed to polish his boots with champagne. Brummell’s influence eventually spilled over into France, where his style was adopted by Bohemians who saw efforts in one’s appearance as not only an art form but a way of challenging the bourgeois society. Brummell himself spilled over into France after he bitchily called Prince George fat and got the royal snub.
The hubbub over today’s dandy throne recently increased in fervor when a Swindle magazine article by Lord Whimsy made several assertions about the nature of dandyism, including its love of artifice and affectation.
“People throw around terms as they see fit,” groans Chensvold. “Then what you get is quasi-goth. The real dandy movement was associated with major intellectuals like Camus and Proust. And yet so many still cling to the definition of clownishness, the over-the-top Jean Paul Gaultier notion of dandy. But what that is is gay camp.”
Certainly Brummell had more than a few over-the-top qualities — as Chensvold charts in his Dandy Genealogy study, Brummell was a perfect combination of 17th-century fop and seductive rogue — but Chensvold says that his favorite Beau begot two distinct branches of dandyism: social dandyism and artistic dandyism. He and Mattis clearly side with the social dandies, who are restrained where the artistics are flamboyant, affable instead of caustic, classic instead of romantic, and modern instead of retro.
“One should be engaged in the real world,” Chensvold advises. Adhering too strictly to the dress of the 1800s, he says, is completely anachronistic.
Dandies should also be sportsmen and social types — James Bond instead of Harold Acton, Fred Astaire instead of Baudelaire — according to Chensvold, who calls himself an “amateur quasiprofessional scholar on dandy history.”
“True dandies were not the Oscar Wilde introverted, willowy, pale art types,” he says. “Dandies were also coldly elegant military types. We’d like to give dandy back its shot of testosterone, get away from the pencil-neck goth aesthetic.”
And, no, women can’t be dandies. “The question is absurd,” spews Chensvold. “Just because women can be astronauts doesn’t mean they can now be male archetypes.”
Chensvold’s model of the worst kind of dandy is Tom Wolfe, with his white suit, walking stick and affected airs: “He eventually became a caricature. He dressed that way to deliberately shock people, and there’s nothing more middle class than that.”
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Ultimately, the clothes don’t make the dandy. It’s the personality traits, the way of life. Chensvold, for his part, is a “quasi-man of leisure” (independence is a key to being a dandy). He smokes a pipe, plays piano, studies badminton and attended Cal State Fullerton on a fencing scholarship. But he doesn’t look the part of a dandy stereotype and sometimes questions his own commitment to his cause on the Web site.
“How can I claim to be the voice of Dandyism.net if I never wear suits and ties, not to mention hats, boutonnieres and Mephistophelean facial hair?” he asked before a recent trip to Tahiti. “I just don’t measure up anymore — I’m too casual. The New York and London media continue to assert that dandyism is by definition formal, anachronistic and eccentric, and who am I to say otherwise?” Was Chensvold raising a crisp white flag and giving up the battle?
Apparently not. The most recent post on the site reports that Chensvold’s “renunciation of dandyism now appears to have been temporary.” The explanation: “On his trip to the island paradise he suffered a near-drowning experience during which he saw Beau Brummell at the end of a long tunnel. Chensvold awoke on the beach with a revelation about the nature of dandyism he promises to share in the coming weeks.”
And so the dandy wars continue.