There’s something distinctly melancholic about an unaffected, well-dressed man and his affected copycat– in short, every guy I know. This revelation came to me while watching the movie trailer for Baz Luhrman’s Gatsby, in which Leo DiCaprio plays a “man in the cool beautiful shirts” with a losing hand in life and love. The dapper dude who doesn’t get the girl. Sound familiar?
Fictional dandies are making a comeback and inciting a real life imitation thereof. “With the advent of television shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, pop culture is sending out a clear message– it’s OK, even encouraged to look your best,” says blogger Spiro Mandylor of It’s All Style To Me.
The first signs of a dandyism resurgence appeared a few years ago. We threw around the now-antiquated term, metrosexual, to describe any gentleman who went the extra mile: trimmed his nose hairs, had a monthly subscription to GQ, and owned at least one pink shirt.
Nowadays, the game has changed. Metrosexualism is rudimentary; guys know how to tie a Windsor knot at birth. Instead, flamboyant millionaires, boutique owners, and feather-in-hat obsessed stylists are considered tastemakers, as evinced in a recent post by menswear authority, SHARP magazine. And in a bright orange suit, Lapo Elkann is the saddest looking man alive.
Melancholia and the dandy isn’t an original association of mine. One of the most poignant descriptions came from Charles Baudelaire who wrote, “Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy.”
The dandy came about in early nineteenth century England and quickly permeated through France with characters such as Count D’Orsay, Beau Brummel and Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac at the helm. These original dandies were part of the age of the individual and were trendsetters in every sense of the word.
You see, dandies are a product of a very specific, and liminal, moment in social history. Aristocracy was still lingering around with democracy on the horizon, threatening to infect the world with sameness. Baudelaire writes, “In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to break down because established on the most precious, the most indestructible faculties, on the divine gifts that neither work nor money can give.”
In 2012, a pastiche of ideologies co-exist, making it difficult to pinpoint what exactly happened in our current society to incite a dandy outbreak. Of course, there are anti-dandy identifiers such as the unkempt hipster – and that almost extinct species of males resisted the onset of metrosexualism (and somehow still got laid) – but for the most part, most guys really give a damn about how they lookin’ these days.
The burgeoning dedication to a lifestyle of sharp dress championed by Fuck Yeah Menswear, Mr. Porter, and Junya Watanabe finds its apogee in the dandies of the Congo. A photobook by Daniele Tamagni depicts these flamboyant fashion disciples in Gucci, Paul Smith, and Versace amidst abject poverty. Some of these African Sapeurs, as they call themselves, work for eight months just to afford one outfit.
Similar to the Victorian dandies, who tried to subvert both aristocracy and democracy by establishing a flamboyant code of dress, the African dandies stem from a moment of social unrest and civil war. Their motto is “Let’s drop the weapons, let us work and dress elegantly.” As stated on Congolese dandy, Hector Mediavilla’s website, “They are a symbol of national identity. The common Congolese are proud to be the most elegant among Africans. The sapeurs would be the elite somehow.”
Judging by his elegant appearance, you’d never guess a high fashion beau was living in squalor. I’m reminded of Kanye West who rapped, “before he speak his suit bespoke; look at this peacoat tell me he’s broke.”
The sudden appearance of dandies in popular culture like Chalky White of Boardwalk Empire, mad man Don Draper, and Suits‘ Harvey Spector – who is the current inspiration for Mr. Porter’s suit campaign - is echoed on the runway, on blogs, and in magazines. Take Simon Spurr FW2012 with his sharp suiting and exaggerated houndstooth prints as an example.
But, aside from their drool-worthy demeanor and dapper style, pop culture dandies are actually the descendants of well-dressed, fictional sad men such as Alfie, Mr. Ripley, and my personal favourite, Dirk Bogarde– black hair dye running down his tumid cheeks in the heart-wrenching final scene of Death in Venice (1971). Like Jay Gatsby, these characters are, essentially, losers.
Fiction’s treatment of the dandy almost always renders him irresistibly impotent. The dandy is the antithesis of the macho man. He is sometimes effeminate, with equivocal sexual orientation, and almost always prefers solitude in the face of conjugal banality. Think Colin Firth’s character in Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009). In his quest to be loved, he’s the atypical mascot for male virility. And yet, find me a man who wasn’t enchanted by those horn-rimmed glasses and sleek Tom Fordian suiting. Find me a woman who wasn’t, for that matter.
“In the bigger macho man picture, fashion is a moot point,” says Mandylor. To be fashionable is to be somewhat of a dandy. And to be a dandy, is to accept an inherent melancholia sprinkled with a dash of impotency. Whether we define this tragedy as individualism, a slavish devotion to couture, or the fact that most suits don’t come with a pocket big enough to fit an Uzi – being somewhat of an anti-hero is an inextricable attribute of dressing well.
Justine Iaboni is a Toronto-based fashion blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @EurotrashGirls.