On dandyism

Whenever societies sink into decadence and decline, the ever fascinating figure of the dandy is swift to emerge.

Poet and novelist, Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900), in his typical costume of a velvet robe and black silk stockings. Wilde was one of the leading dandies of the Victorian era
Poet and novelist, Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900), in his typical costume of a velvet robe and black silk stockings. Wilde was one of the leading dandies of the Victorian era. Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Decadent Movement of the late nineteenth century advocated aesthetic refinement, the sublimity of beauty, and the absence of bourgeois morality from art. Decadent art, literature and culture transcend the realms of ordinary existence, entering the spheres of both dreams, the unconscious, and the abnormal. This inauguration of new subject matter, styles of narration, and modes of inspiration, has often been described as a form of escapism from a society that underwent fundamental changes: the loss of power of the aristocracy, the rise of the middle classes, the establishment of a performative presentation of the self, technological progress, and the development of cosmopolitan, urban metropolises, to name just a few.

The Decadent Movement was small, but it was also potent, radical and avant-garde. Accordingly, ‘decadence’ became a term of reproach within art criticism, applied to artists who transcended the rules of Classicism that still coordinated artistic creation and public expectation. Decadent artists exploited the creative potential of decline, elevating decadence to a new literary style.

The Decadent Movement was closely allied to dandyism. Many decadent artists were dandies or depicted dandies in their writings, from Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire to Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain and Oscar Wilde. According to Baudelaire, the dandy emerges in ‘periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall’ – the process of cultural decline in the moment of bourgeois empowerment. Faced with an arising mass culture that implies vulgarity and a decline in beauty and taste, the dandy acts as a reactionary, desiring the preservation of the grandeur and style of pre-democratic societies. Conseqeuntly, the rise of dandyism is inextricably linked to a declining culture. The dandy is a figure of transition between ages.

Life is a performance

Essentially, the dandy cultivates the idea of beauty and refinement to such an extent that he turns himself into a work of art. His life becomes a performance, his self a mask. The demands on the modern individual involve self-alienation and heteronomy; the dandy, however, intends to be solitary and independent from duties of any kind.

Dandyism is a strategy of performance of the self that emerged in a time of change when a readily comprehensible world fell into disparities – a process that left the self irritated and in danger of dissolving. The most obvious part of dandyism, the excessive care for outward appearance, is only the first step in the creation of a structure-giving self. The dandy consolidates in order to sustain in a world of continuous change. He opts for a strategy of torpor to communicate his artificiality, which stands in strong opposition to Nature as the symbol of the normal, the healthy and the morally sane. The dandy transcends into the realms of art to escape the annihilation of his subjectivity.

The late nineteenth-century decadent dandy is usually classified as a degenerated derivative of what has often been termed the ‘classic’ dandy; however, the figure has been fundamentally decadent since its inception, and indeed the correlation between decadence and dandyism has been widely acknowledged. Recent studies have accordingly analysed dandyism as a practice of staging the self.

I would like to suggest that the dandy’s strategy of torpor forms part of this practice and is manifested in his dress, sexuality, and manner of speech, but also finds expression in his refusal to undertake commitments of any kind. The dandy’s outer stiffness, decidedly marked by tightly laced stays and heavily starched neckcloths, is emblematic of his inner torpor.

The idea of decadence envisions a process of becoming and decline, wherein decadent society forms the latest stage of this evolution. Decadence shows a highly refined, yet over-saturated society, distinguished by luxury, ennui, refinement, and idleness. The idea of dandyism originates in this cultural stage. The dandy arises only in cultures that have passed the state of mere survival. He requires an environment of leisure and consumption that provides the goods and the facilities to turn himself into a work of art.

The eternal dandy

The alliance of decadence and dandyism dates back as far as antiquity: Caesar, Catiline, Petronius, Elagabalus, and Alcibiades, have all been described as dandies. Alcibiades (451–404 BC), for example, has been described as the ‘arbiter elegantiarum’ of his time, marked by an inimitable and exaggerated elegance. He accessorized heavily with gold and was the inspiration for the dandy in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Henrietta Temple (1837), Count Alcibiades de Mirabel, ‘the best dressed man in London’ with a passion for pleasure. Barbey d’Aurevilly underlines the importance of the antique prototype when he ends his seminal essay on dandyism with the conclusion that Alcibiades ‘fut le plus beau type [du dandysme] chez la plus belle des nations!’ Petronius (14–66) was to Nero what George Brummell, the most famous of all dandies, was to George IV– a fashion adviser. In Petronius’s novel Satyrica, clothes and aesthetic objects become indicators of cultural refinement. Eccentricities, aesthetics and refined elegance define the decadent performance of the self, not only in antiquity but also throughout the ages, as one commentator on dandyism remarked in 1823:

… the insignificant tribe in question, whether under the appellation of beaux, fops, petits-maitres, dandies, or exquisites, have equally abounded in all ages… Even those sage and philosophical people, the Greeks and Romans, were not exempt from them… It is among the Romans, however, that we are to look for the ancient dandies in the greatest perfection.

The innately decadent structure of the dandy is confirmed in the phrase ‘the rise and progress of the Dandy-Tribe.’ Identifying the dandies as a tribe means equating them with the Barbarians, who introduced decadence to antique Rome and ultimately caused its fall. The great paradox is that the dandy is considered as the harbinger of decline by his opponents, whereas the dandy himself detects the world around him to be decadence-ridden already.

Dandies against the cult of progress

A positive reformulation of decadence first occurred in the nineteenth century in the works of Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier. The latter was associated with the romantic dandies of the 1830s, who challenged artistic conventions. In 1833, Désiré Nisard attacked the new Romantic school, ‘la littérature facile’, in a legendary polemic in the Revue de Paris. The following year, Nisard published his Études des moeurs et de critique sur les poètes latins de la décadence, where he contrasts authors of the Roman decadence with contemporary French writers.

After Nisard, decadent literature is marked by individuality, resulting in a disregard of established rules – each and every author writes what he likes, as he likes. This trait of originality is a crucial element in dandyism. Moreover, the dandy often emphasizes that his writing is intended for a select few, a point that Nisard also raises in respect of decadent literature. Nisard’s Études provoked a heated debate about literary decadence at the same time as avant-garde writers adopted dandyism as a performative strategy. Both literary styles evince critical commonalities: the artificiality of the literary text is exposed through original, artistic and provoking metaphors, comparisons, and allegories; and the narrative level is obscured through blank spaces and an atmosphere of ambiguity and opacity via irony, questions and conditional clauses.

The decadent feeling of decline soon prevailed in artistic circles as an intellectual counter-movement to the dominant faith in progress and the classical notion of beauty as natural and morally sane. Decadent authors developed a subversive aesthetic that ran counter to the classical idea of beauty. Gautier’s narrator Albert in Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835/36), the foundational work of literary decadence in the nineteenth century, finds beauty only in works of art – Greek statues, for example. He describes himself as decadent: ‘surfeited to such a degree that I am no longer tickled by what is whimsical or difficult’, ‘weary as if I had gone through all the prodigalities of Sardanapalus’, having ‘passed through so many things … that only the steepest heights any longer tempt me.’ Albert diagnoses himself as being ‘attacked by the malady which seizes nations and powerful men in their old age – the impossible’ and praises the Roman emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Heliogabalus, and Nero for their dissipations, which he would surpass if he could. Albert seeks excess whilst being bored by an unalluring reality – a symptom of decadence.

Art contra nature

In his 1868 introduction to Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Théophile Gautier defines the poet’s literary style as decadent – that is to say refined, complex, artistic, synaesthetic, metaphoric, daring, and startling. Gautier contrasts Baudelaire’s decadent style to Classicism and relates it to the Latin and Greek decadences. The complex life of the nineteenth century, Gautier argues, requires a language that is more refined than that of Classicism and that adequately expresses the specific and artificial beauties of an advanced and aging era. Gautier introduces the term ‘transposition d’art’, which means a complete detachment from nature: art instead seeks inspiration from other works of art and enters a meta-level, communicating not with the world outside but with a world within the realm of art. This goes in accordance with a reflective sensory perception – ‘dedoublement’ in Gautier’s terms – that is highly conscious of the artistic framework that surrounds the self. Within the aesthetic framework of decadence, beauty is artificial, refined, decorated, perfected, and deliberate. Stylistically, decadent authors focus strongly on the formal aspects of their work, a strategy that is also characteristic of the dandy.

Baudelaire first outlined his ideas on decadent literature in the essay Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe (1857). The advocates of Classicism, Baudelaire argues, define a decadent text as formed with the intention to surprise, as being richly ornamented and well sculptured in terms of language and prosody. It is an elaborate work of art that finds its corporeal equivalent in the dandy.

The heightened aesthetic sensibilities that are symptomatic of the decadent deplete vitality. Artificial paradises (hallucinations, drugs, malls, clubs, boulevards) become both places of refuge and an exclusive space. As a performative construct, the dandy becomes the perfect embodiment of the decadent, because his artificiality defies nature and precludes the loss of vigour that decadent practices inevitably entail. Accordingly, Baudelaire depicts dandyism as ‘the last spark of heroism amid decadence’, which clearly marks the dandy as someone who seeks to impede decline; yet ‘the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride and pouring floods of oblivion upon the footprints of these stupendous warriors.’ As Baudelaire insinuates, any effort to counteract this process of change is ineffectual. The dandy therefore opts for a strategy of torpor to sustain his individuality and independence in artificiality.

Dandyism in decline

Dandyism is itself subjected to the process of rise and fall that defines decadence. The heyday of dandyism was the era of George Brummell, who fled England in 1816. In 1823, commentators declared the decline of dandyism, which was described as ‘a feeble twilight’ and the harbinger of ‘a long night of Egyptian darkness’. This allusion to Orientalism as a symbol of decadence was seized by another correspondent, who likened the decline of the Greek and Roman Empires to the situation in England caused by dandyism:

So long as the Romans took pleasure in arms and the management of horses, they were unconquerable, till Sylla returned from Asia and indulged them in luxuries, which enervated them, and nothing would then please them but a statue. When the Athenians saw themselves raised above the other states of Greece, they gave up their exercises, and became degenerate.

The corrupting influence of Oriental cultures, practices, and luxuries had become a commonplace topos in the nineteenth-century discourse on decadence. The discourse on dandyism was conflated with the discourses on Orientalism, decadence and degeneration. The correspondent associates decline with an overindulgence in the fine arts and sterile consumption. His letter to the editor serves as a warning: he considers the ‘rising generation of English gentlemen’ to be in a state of degeneracy inextricably linked to their dandyism. Where the Romans imitated Oriental customs, so the young English dandies pick up on French modes. Orientalism implied effeminacy and enervation, decadent symptoms that are also ascribed to the ‘Frenchified dandy’ whose ‘nature seems perverted’ and who causes great disgust. The affected dandy who turns himself into a work of art becomes the allegory of decadence – his sole purpose is the cultivation of beauty.

The artificiality of the dandy is outwardly epitomized by the stiffness of his dress. This evokes the discourse of degeneration, as the overall stiffness constrains the dandy’s internal organs to an almost life-threatening extent. The tightly laced stays often led to fainting, compression, and immovability. Stays became the symbol of the dandy discourse of degeneration: the overall stiffness presented a rigid attitude and suggested that the dandy was constantly posing. Accordingly, the dandy appeared less like a human being and more like an artificial construct, such as a machine or an automaton.

Everything useful is ugly

The dandy aims towards a deconstruction of the idea of natural beauty in favour of an artistic recreation of it. Gautier’s concept of beauty is authoritative for that of the dandy at large:

There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be of any use whatsoever; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature.

Nature is rejected because it is related to imperatives that involve coercion and are induced by instincts. Being driven by instincts is equivalent to dependency, which runs contrary to the very concept of dandyism. The dandy claims independence to unfold his originality. He needs to set himself free from nature to recreate himself as a work of art. The dandy was considered an artist that beautifies the plain, unaesthetic nakedness of man. As ‘clothes-wearing animal[s]’, human beings want to adorn themselves. The aesthetic genius of the dandy has perfected this technique. Dandyism is more than just fashioning the self; it includes a variety of adjacent arts like perfumery, snuff-taking, or the manubrium of a cane. Barbey d’Aurevilly confirms this comprehensive understanding of dandyism in his thoughts on Brummell: ‘Il était un grand artiste à sa manière; seulement son art n’était pas spécial, ne s’exerçait pas dans un temps donné. C’était sa vie même’, whilst Baudelaire appended: ‘These beings have no other calling but to cultivate the idea of beauty in their persons.’ Accordingly, dandyism is defined as a lifestyle within which not only the person is adorned, but also the environment.

The performance of artificiality is marked by accessorizing with artificial enhancements – pads for the shoulders, breast, hips, and calves – that imitate the hour-glass shaped appearance of a woman. The feminization of the dandy allows the transfer of Baudelaire’s praise of cosmetics as ‘the need to surpass Nature’ to the figure. The dandy enhances his natural body with make-up, contouring, and accessories. With regard to the woman, Baudelaire esteems the use of powder when it is:

… successfully designed to rid the complexion of those blemishes that Nature has outrageously strewn there, and thus to create an abstract unity in the colour and texture of the skin, a unity, which, … immediately approximates the human being to the statue, that is to something superior and divine.

The dandy utilizes tools that were generally reserved for women, from ‘artificial applications to the skin of the face’ to beauty spots ‘neatly shaped into ovals, circles, or squares’. The application of rouge and beauty spots add to the impression of artificiality and torpor, as the face becomes ‘a bloodless fleshy masque from a visage-manufactory.’ Artificial ringlets, wigs, and oiled, perfumed, or combed-up hair complement the dandy look. The dandy’s gender bending was a viable strategy to de-naturalise and become a work of art, where ambiguity inhibits definite attributions in favour of diverse and subjective interpretations. Further accessories include the monocle and the lorgnon – artificial eyes intended to surpass the natural capabilities of the wearer, but also tools to keep the natural world at a distance. Gloves, another essential accessory for the dandy, served the same purpose.

Dandy as automaton

Keeping the world at bay was not merely achieved by external tools, but also by a manner of impassibility. Baudelaire had argued:

The distinguishing characteristic of the dandy’s beauty consists above all in an air of coldness which comes from an unshakeable determination not to be moved.

Barbey d’Aurevilly argued likewise, linking the dandy’s attitude to antique stoicism: ‘Le dandysme introduit le calme antique au sein des agitations modernes’. The dandy’s haughty demeanour hides any emotions and is intended to emphasize his superiority. The dandyistic discourse accentuates this superiority by localizing dandyism at ‘the finished state of society’, i.e. a final point but also the peak of civilization, from where only decline can follow. Dandyism has always been a movement of a select few who stand above the commonality, intellectually as well as in terms of their social position. The dandy is an essentially urban construct who can barely survive outside the regulated world of salons and clubs. Social rules and etiquette act as a corset, sustaining the modern self that is at risk of decomposing into particularities. The dandy’s stiffening up is a technique to survive in a world breaking apart. Dress, make-up and accessories serve as armour against imponderabilities of any kind.

The dandy’s stiffness in turn provokes the image of an artificial being, or a lifeless thing. Indeed, various commentators of dandyism in early nineteenth-century journalism and literature refer to the difficulty of classifying and gendering the dandy. The dandy is considered unmanly, effeminate, a hermaphrodite, androgynous, a thing, an automaton, or as a different species of animal. The dandy was generally approached with hostility: the notion of forfeiting virile masculinities seemed rather revolting and, at a grander scale, perilous for society at large. Often, the dandy was devitalized and portrayed as a ‘thing’. Metaphors of inanimateness refer to the dandy’s unnaturalness and artificiality. Various sources portray the dandy as a ‘suit of clothes, endowed by some unknown species of magic or mechanism’ or ‘a complete piece of mechanism’ and an ‘automaton’. Others chose the term ‘non-descript’ to refer to the confusion of gender norms.

The paradox situation of the dandy as avant-garde and retrograde is due to the general situation of Western societies in the nineteenth century, which were marked by economic and scientific progress on the one hand and increasingly rigid principles on morality and art that hindered innovation on the other. The Zeitgeist favoured art with a moral or educational purpose, which provoked violent reactions by artists whose idea of progress implied artistic innovations that ran counter to strict public morality. The dandy simultaneously transcends to postmodern ideas of self-performance. Accordingly, dandyism has become a valid strategy for the modern self, as its reception and variations evince.

From Bright Young People to Mods – dandyism in the 20th century

The Bright Young People of the 1920s displayed a particular degree of dandyism. They were notorious for their fancy dress balls, which put masquerading centre stage. The daily routine of the Bright Young People ‘consisted of waking up late, meeting people for lunch, bringing the lunch party home for tea, moving on to cocktails and dinner … and ending up with a communal trek around the fashionable restaurants of the West End,’ according to one observer, and is equivalent to that of the dandy. Moreover, the Bright Young Man was described as a ‘hapless nonentity [that] was condemned as weary, anaemic, feminine, bloodless, dolled up like a girl, an exquisite without masculinity’ – attributions which had been ascribed to the dandy a century earlier. Like dandyism, the Bright Young People enabled social climbers like Cecil Beaton to mingle in aristocratic circles as English society underwent fundamental changes. The war had depopulated the circles of young middle class men, giving opportunities not only to men from lower classes but also to young women, who made up a significant proportion of the Bright Young People. The pleasure-seeking adventures of the movement became a symbol of the alleged decadence of post-war England: they anticipated growing democratic tendencies as well as the advent of entertainment culture.

The 1960s saw the emergence of the Mod movement in Britain, a cultural re-awakening that implemented American and French influences (Existentialism, Modern Jazz). The critical stance towards the growing influence of American culture had been essential not only to dandyism but also to the Mod movement, even though the latter was also influenced by it. The Mods engaged Continental European fashions and styles, which put them on the threshold of today’s consumerist globalized economy. Like the dandies, they were an utterly avant-garde, urban phenomenon that cultivated a unique style and a cool and distanced attitude to express their superiority in taste and intellect. Fifteen-year-old Marc Bolan replied to a newspaper article on the Mod movement citing George Brummell:

He was just like us really. You know, came up from nothing. Then he met royalty and got to know all the blokes and he had a lot of clothes.

Dandyism enabled social advancement through the valorisation of style and taste as a new form of social capital, a strategy readily adopted by the working-class youth who shaped the Mod movement in order to transcend the social confines into which they were born. The affinity of dandies and Mods is most distinctly expressed in the last phase of the Mod movement (1966–1969), the so-called Dandy Mod or Peacock Revolution, which was more effete and would later evolve into Glam Rock. Glam Rock itself was in part infused with dandyism: it enabled the self-conscious staging of truly artificial personas, fusing dandyism with the evolving star cult. Glam emerged from the British art schools and was inextricably linked to aestheticism and aestheticizing. The band Roxy Music, for example, whose singer Bryan Ferry is still termed a dandy, was formed as an objet d’art and became ‘above all else, a state of mind’. This reveals an artistic self-consciousness and an intellectual distancing from the corporeal performance that is symptomatic of dandyism.

With the advent of modern consumerism, the dandy entered the sphere of pop. The German phenomenon of the dandies of pop literature exhibits the depression of the decadent dandy. The writer collective of the formative Tristesse Royal (1999) demonstrate the problem with fashion: it no longer serves as a viable tool for distinction, let alone originality; hence, the writers willingly allow their dresses to be spoiled and destroyed. This form of sartorial destruction answers to the great feeling of ennui that these writers experience. Their writing exhibits feelings of decline and incapacity: depression emanates from their inability to produce anything new in this advanced, decadent state of civilization where everything has been said and done. Accordingly, they follow a strategy of collecting, archiving, and rearranging knowledge, as something unique can only be achieved by presenting existing content in new forms. This strategy had been employed much earlier by dandies such as Théophile Gautier as a sign of their contempt for literary production as bourgeois working duty.

Meanwhile, across the channel, the British artist Sebastian Horsley stylized himself as a dandy. With his autobiography Dandy in the Underworld, Horsley placed himself in the tradition of dandyism, citing Brummell, Baudelaire, Wilde and Bolan. Having realized that originality can only be asserted through a complete journey into the extreme, the perverse and the grotesque, Horsley – who was crucified and worked as a prostitute, to name just a few of his eccentricities – established failure as an art form. Decline is ubiquitous in his life and work: the first chapter of his autobiography is titled ‘Birth was almost the death of me’ because his mother took an overdose after finding out about her pregnancy. The final chapter, entitled ‘Death would be the birth of me’, refers to the cyclic model of decadence and the general performance of dandyism: the decay of the dandy is constitutive of his becoming. Decline is implied in the dandy’s refusal to marry and to beget children, as well as in his affinity to suicide, marking the end of a line, a family, and a heritage.

The dandy is an ideal concept, the unattainability of which becomes evident in the difficulty of defining this utterly paradoxical figure as well as in the fact that every single appearance of a dandy transpires to be the approximation of an unapproachable ideal. This is due to the dandy’s pretence to individuality and originality: a dandy has to be unique, yet rules on dandyism exist. A dandy is always the last dandy and the first.

This essay originally appeared as ‘Decadence and Dandyism’ in Decadence and Decay, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in association with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.


Melanie Grundmann