A Shock of Color
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and resting on Sunday must have caused some deficiency for Style appeared in the World. Style, by all means, is something that never should have existed for it contradicts anything Pure and Pious. But here we have it and while sartorial conservatives—purists if we wish to call them—scoff at any suggestions of deviating from tradition, there are some men who deserve an attendant ovation for their contributions to that element known as Style.
The Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali was such a man, and he was always clad in a fantastically pregnant imbroglio of bespoke suits, Rococo neckties, graphic shirts, alien facial hair, Baroque jewels, walking sticks, and an imperious attitude that would make a lesser man faint, if not just for the sheer effort of the pose.
However, with some error, Salvador Dali is usually seen less as a flamboyant clotheshorse than a flamboyant artist; but to discount anything about his vanity is akin to discounting sex and drugs—where would one be without the other?
Anecdotally—if we are to trust Dali’s surreal but erudite ‘autobiographies’— his clothes habit began young when his mother apparently bought him a silver-headed walking stick to take with him to grade school; and, of course, what good is a stick without some form of action? Dali was impelled to hit his classmates’ heads with it. Perhaps he was the precursor to Andre Breton’s declaration of “Beauty must be convulsive”? But whatever charming incidents in childhood, it is his teenaged years that found Dali truly discovering himself. He had been accepted into the pre-eminent Madrid Academy of Arts, and, like any good art-school student would, sought to emulate the legends of nonconformity—namely Charles Baudelaire.
He notes in the “Secret Life of Salvador Dali”, a chapter entitled ‘Dandyism and Imprisonment’: “That next morning I arrived at the Academy…I had just bought the most expensive sport suit in the most expensive shop I could find in Madrid, and I wore a sky-blue silk shirt with sapphire cuff-links. I had spent three hours slicking down my hair, which I had soaked in a very sticky brilliantine and set by means of a special hairnet I had just bought, after which I further varnished my hair with real picture varnish” Apparently “it had become a smooth, homogenous, hard paste shaped to my head”.
While this sort of vanity might assure the reader the man was a maniac, he does possess some restraint. One need only look at his mid-century photos to see something more discreet, albeit still idiosyncratic. He is shown en route to New York on a ship, wearing a well-cut double-breasted suit and the at-attention moustaches—he has the sort of Latin stylistic patois that gets one noticed. There is a particularly astonishing photo of him, from the same period, showing his eye “replaced” with a jeweled prosthetic.
As with any unconventional and controversial personage, Dali attracted a fair amount of criticism. Not trifling among them were things criticizing his dress as some form of self-advertisement. And while one can make a fair and certain case that any form of dress—whether a rube’s overalls or a king’s ermine—is a form of self-advertisement, an important example of metonymy, it does seem that Dali took costume to another level, so to say. But then, doesn’t any artist take something of their personality to an extreme? Or one may make the case that he was merely an eccentric—Dame Edith Sitwell once remarked: “I am not eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel, set in a pond full of goldfish”. Goldfish, certainly, but the world’s masses have never been terribly exciting, have they?
And Dali’s dress was the most exciting of any gathering. Even in the hectic 1970s, Dali was the most noticeable of the sundry people gathering at Studio 54—not a small feat considering bewigged Andy Warhol, elfin Truman Capote, gauzy Roy Halston, and hysterical Liza Minelli were all competing for something—likely cocaine. But I digress; and as later as one looks at whatever archive of photographs, Dali’s attire becomes progressively flamboyant and altogether, rather sophisticated. His artist’s eye for coloration, texture, pattern, and cut was as sharp as ever and the combinations became—as the normal folk say—more bizarre.
Eugenio Montes wrote of Dali and Bunuel: “Bunuel and Dali have just placed themselves resolutely beyond the pale of what is considered good taste, beyond the pale of the pretty, the agreeable, the epidermal, the frivolous, the French”. Although the passage was a criticism of their collaborative film, Le Chien Andalou, the genesis still holds up. Decorums of (bourgeois) taste, maxims of prettiness, and the agreeable are not the concerns here, and one can only assume that ‘beyond the pale of the French’ means not printed wallpapers, bicycle rides and picnics. However, one can make the suggestion that his style was one of the first Post-Modernist sartorial creations that many contemporary dandies owe their closets to.
One can think of numerous figures in today’s society that can at least attribute some tenet of their dress to Dali’s argot. The New York fixture and self-crowned “High Brow”, Patrick McDonald is decidedly an example with his Marlene Dietrich eyebrows and colorful riffs of classical tailoring. On a slightly more drier—and British—scale is Nicholas Foulkes, of British GQ and a consummate author of vanity texts. His lavender three-pieces, jeweled tidbits and fringed suede jackets might seem more d’Orsay than Dali, but the insinuation is that, really, can any modern dandy not owe something to a figure as Dali? It would rather be like eschewing Oscar Wilde in a discussion about wit.
Of course, for today’s man—or today’s adventuring female—to become a Dali, it would be necessary to have a large amount of natural style and money. While the former article is an absolute requirement, the latter is not. There are the thrift shops for the budget conscious Bohemian types who prefer $7.50 ‘70s. Then there are the international bespoke makers—or ‘artisans’ as current rhetoric goes. Thrift shops should be self-explanatory, but bespoke is recondite. If, authenticity to Dali’s look is paramount, then bespoke should be the only choice—some of the French makers are especially suited for the task, a Gallic witty elegance always evident.
Yet Ready-To-Wear also presents a style alternative: high-end and so-called avant-garde designers always make something similar in spirit to Dali wear. Viktor & Rolf inevitably show some sorts of suits and outerwear that mimics an inimitable flamboyance; Burberry Prorsum always has colorful dress shirts; Comme des Garçons consistently presents uncommon coats and jackets; and the walking canes, stick-pins and assorted jewels can be readily, but expensively, had from shops such as Kentshire in New York, G.Lorenzi in Milan, James Smith & Sons in London, Dary’s in Paris, JAR in Paris and Cable Car Clothiers in San Francisco. Auction houses such as Christies, Sothebys, Bonhams & Butterfields, and Philipps de Pury de Luxembourg regularly hold auctions for antique men’s jewels and accessories.
Men’s wear today is a dedicated mélange of casual tragedies and the dysfunctional perversity of appearing conventional. It is precisely ugly because it is so normal. And appropriately, the last words should belong to Dali: “I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it”.
The Style of Dali
Here Dali shows how much a nonchalant attitude is worth when wearing altogether violent clothing. The wide-striped velvet jacket—rather like draperies at Maxim’s de Paris circa 1974—situates deftly with the floral brocade-like tie, knotted nicely but not primly. All this color is compounded and deflected by the wise choice of a basic white shirt. Indeed, contrary to popular conventions, a white shirt needn’t be the exclusive domain of law firm interns and the occasionally jaunty stockbroker.
The supreme irony of this scene is that Dali is penning a telegram to that bastion of respectability, Richard Nixon.
Yet again, Dali’s ensemble is a cunning blend of textures and patterns. Despite the photograph being in monotone, the richness of the velvet and brocade are evident; and the characteristic Spanish love of the Baroque is shown by this trinity of extravagance—the jacket, the vest and the tie, all layered together. Again, all this is balanced by the plain white shirt—and to an extent coordinated together by the white pocket-handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.
This is by no means, an accessible outfit. It requires an insolent swagger and a particular force of personality.
A more subdued but no less flamboyant Dali wearing a bow tie. While on an overwhelming basis Dali favored neckties, he is wearing a bow tie in this present picture. The Andover Shop’s proprietor, Charlie Davidson once said that bow ties are to be worn to keep your viewers off balance—like a little shock once in a while; and like eating liver.
Clearly, this was one of those moments of shock by conservatism.
Whoever said that shirt collars needed to be firm and straight like a model’s thighs were clearly under some form of distressing influence. This white lacy example here—while typically Spanish in a sort of Velazquez-ian, courtly way—shows that a certain carriage can take something from arcane to acute. No less compelling is the conservative tie, knotted prudishly, but cinched with what appears to be a small antique Indian jewel.
If disabilities all looked this good, then the world would be a rather more endearing place; but then, pearls—or diamonds—of wisdom are rare things, and time even more so. Here Dali shows how his platinum, diamond and ruby “Eye of Time” watch looks when worn as a prosthetic device. The gemstones provide a reflective palette from the dark suit and red carnation boutonniere. It also accessorizes with the small-jeweled stickpin in the insouciantly knotted tie. A white handkerchief peaks out of the foreground. If art historians looked at this picture, they would comment on the linear function of objects, starting from the handkerchief, leading up to the diamond eye; but I just think the whole thing looks swinging.