Ecce Dandy

By Film Noir Buff

What is a Dandy? Everyone has a reaction to the word “dandy” but how many have actually ruminated on the term and its meanings? It may be that the actual term is far too complex to ever fully understand. That the meaning of “dandy” may forever elude definition and might require volumes of study for even the most basic understanding. What we do know, is that when he appears with a carnation in his lapel he excites notice and comment. The secure are pleased, the jealous are overly inquisitive and those who feel inadequate make their minds up that this is frivolity itself.

Perhaps the dandy’s place in society is to summon another’s true nature to the surface. There is a Twilight Zone episode where an old player piano would “out” a certain personality type according to what tune was played on it. The true personality was brought out against the subject’s will and belied the face they were wearing for the world.

If, like in the player piano episode, the role of the dandy is to elicit a self revealing reaction from his observer what tune animates the dandy himself? Identifying that tune may prove elusive, and might cut much deeper than the clothes they seem to exist to wear. This would suggest a more complex persona for the dandy than the mere fascination of beauty and style. And it may be that like the player piano episode, there are forces at work, which are beyond the comprehension of the dandy himself.

The Dandy is looked up to as an example of elegance and at the same time ridiculed for his superficialities. How can a dandy be thusly persecuted and extolled? We know that some of our most influential men across Anglo-Franco-American History have been dandies. Examples abound: Patton, Churchill, Disraeli, Wilde, Fitzgerald, The Duke of Windsor, Proust, and Hemmingway to list a mere handful.

A dandy set the stage for what we all wear, and Dandies after him refined it. Dandies are considered the very essence of social interaction, living to a certain degree not only to dress but to interact with their surroundings and affect them. And yet, a dandy can be considered a loner, an outsider.

Although the dandy is often called upon to serve as an example of maintaining propriety, he can also be portrayed both as not serious and not to be trusted. Like the Templar order that were eventually burned at the stake by the King of France, the Dandy can be used and then thanklessly discarded. I think there may be a deeper reason for this. Though the dandy is a figure of the establishment, he is definitely his own man, a libertarian, a non-conformist amongst the conformists. He may support King and Church and Country, but he is not a flag waver. This is not a good personality type for society interested in producing individuals easily controlled.

Control is an issue, especially in a country, where the humorless work ethic may have developed a sense of jealousy about the dandy’s wit and ease with the ladies. Think of Fred Astaire in his movies as a graceful, witty dandy foiling and making look inflexible, all the overly serious men around him.

Even so, this image was only able to manifest itself for a short time during the depression era when the carefree lifestyle of the dandy temporarily intersected with the dreams of the unemployed “everyman.” The depression was one of the few periods here when the “work ethic” broke down completely and the idea of national lightheartedness was necessary for emotional relief. And the work ethic being essentially “taste-deaf” would only be able to counter the dandy’s lightheartedness with condemnation that it was idleness. And we all know what idle hands lead to.

Ordinarily the dandy is subject to jealousies by those who cannot keep up with his seemingly effortless ease. Thus it seems word is spread that the dandy is not serious, that he is flamboyant and that he is overly vain. How else could the centralized bureaucracy keep us from respecting the dandy, from admiring him? It seems this labeling is designed to reduce him to the level of lightweight, of self-indulgent “dirty player”. We see the dandy as a recurring character in film.

Think of any Hero who is a little too well turned out and tidy, and you will find a character too good to be true. In film noir, though many of the characters love clothes and have style, the pure dandy is often the villain, the sociopath. Think of the Clifton Webb’s character in the film Laura (1944) who seems to be the very pillar of stability, then exposed as the essence of self-indulgent appetites. Portrayed as an immaculate dandy, he seems harmless and superficial, but apparently teeming with evil cravings.

How many times is the precise character presented in film as the one with the wicked, anti social thoughts? Like the art dealer Fustian in the Albert Campion series, under the façade of decency and propriety, the dandy is a “dirty trickster.” At best he comes off as unable to love anyone but himself.

Those classic B grade Hammer films come to mind with all their debonair English madmen dressed to the nines. Each one of them educated, refined and immaculately outfitted, but insane and diabolical. Aren’t all the Bond Villains highly individualistic dandies? It would seem Hollywood would have us believe dandies are trying to destroy the world with their self-absorption.

I think what is happening here is the public’s inability to separate the true dandy from the compulsive, neurotic personality. There are some similarities but, like the double helix, many traits of each do not touch. If a dandy is someone who wears clothes for the pure enjoyment of wearing clothes, he is at peace except to the extent that he may be dreaming of acquiring another piece with which to adorn his person.

On the other hand, the compulsive neurotic is at odds with nature, and it follows that being obsessed with perfection would lead one (neurotic) to intricacies of clothing, clothing being a “fussy” item and thus an endroit neurotics would congregate around. However, there can be no enjoyment of clothes where the concern is only with neatness and construction, stitches per square everything, being pressed and afraid of a stain, all at the expense of consumption and style. If one were to play the player piano music for custom made shirts it would prompt a dandy to ask if the shirts are beautiful, a neurotic would want to ask if they are prefect.

Perfectionists are doomed from the outset, and they are too caught up with their own inner demons to have relationships. True dandies get dressed well then have a merry time on the town and do not worry about every crease bending their legs causes in their trousers or whether their companion’s lipstick gets on their collar. These are all part of what makes the wardrobe more comfortable; they are the road to patina. A dandy is happiest when he is dressed well in the way he likes to dress.

Next time you see the man with the carnation in his lapel, make sure you observe to see whether he is constantly looking at it and smoothing his lapel out or if he is walking jauntily and oblivious to his surroundings. If the second type, he is not worried about what others think of him, and probably a true dandy.

He certainly isn’t overly worried about picayune comments about whether a buttonhole is exactly one sixteenth of an inch away from the edge. The Dandy has some knowledge of construction but prefers beauty to uniformity, taste to technicalities. He knows what he likes automatically, and the idea that everything he wears has to be of the “best” is absurd, the concept of the “best” being a rather elusive one.

Excellence is more likely the aim of the dandy. While worry over the “best” is the purview of the neurotic who runs around in circles like a pinball bouncing off of bumpers, for the approval of others, the dandy relies on his own well grounded preference. The dandy merely enjoys what he enjoys in a very fluid, natural manner. Which all begs the question, is a dandy born or made?

I think probably the dandy is born not made. He is developed and polished but one either hears the aria, or one does not. That may be why so many who try so hard and have it not in them, give up in disgust and decide that it was all vainglorious after all. In this way, the dandy is more like the shaman, the medicine-man.

Forces are at work creating the dandy, he occurs in nature, but rarely and, like left handed children, his talents are often quickly corrected by his unimaginative environment. And within that rareness, there are so many variations, that social observers have trouble cataloguing him properly. Whatever they are, in the modern age, they tend to be a discreet character and eschew discussions about their toilette, which only adds to the murmurs that he is an outsider, not generous and prone to hoarding his talents rather than sharing them with the world. Again, that is a trait society finds unacceptable.

Acceptable dandies like Sherlock Holmes are such because they are Brummelian one step further. Not only do they wear the same monotonously scrupulous outfit, but it was ala mode and in no way one’s own cut. He simply appears apparently unconsciously clad in the most correct articles of clothing. It also ties in with the Victorian/Puritanical ideals of thrift. It also helps that Holmes was a mastermind and a heavyweight sleuth. However, I might add that he is pictured as an unwholesome loner (Watson is more like his familiar than his friend), and a tortured, pallid, obsessive soul.

It would seem that in the modern societal context, even acceptable dandies must have severe failings. Additionally, that they must not actually be what they seem to promote themselves as. That even the most honorable ones harbor dark secrets. In fact, I can think of no illustrated hero who is precise in his kit who doesn’t also have serious flaws. Real Heroes are rugged, outdoorsy and muscular, and if they look good in clothes, it had better be an accident.

We may never truly know who and what a dandy is. The man and the mask are perhaps inseparable. We do know that wherever the dandy’s well heeled eminence goes, curiosity follows. Dandies march to the beat of a very different drum, if you could only hear its music, you would understand. Baudelaire touched on it well when he said that Dandyism was a form of religion. Perhaps, its devotees are fanatics, and perhaps they are mystics. They do seem to know each other instantly, as if there is some greater power at work coursing through sartorial radio waves undetected by the rest of the population.

However, the dandy IS recognized by the public as a type. Additionally, the dandy is a recurring stock character in Hollywood movies, but he is never neutral. No one in a movie is ever a dandy as a matter of chance; it always touches on his character. And although the dandy is known to exist, who he really is remains a mystery.

All that seems to shine through is who he seems to be to the uninformed observer, and that is someone who thinks himself superior, above the laws of men. Demanding respect, he at once wants to be looked at and yet, intimidate from inquiry about his clothes. In this manner, the dandy reinforces the idea that he is a loner, that he is provoking curiosity and cruelly denying the observer an outlet for resolution of that being observed. This frustrates the full appreciation and keeps the titillation ongoing. That stance keeps familiar, contempt laden paws off the dandy, paws that may turn and rend just as soon as stroke and admire.

And so we are back to the man with the carnation. He gets off the elevator and strolls by you, and you wonder. The man with the carnation makes us all wonder if there isn’t something he knows that the rest of us do not. Has he more expertise, what other interesting secrets lurk beneath? Women think he is maybe a little more interesting. Men think he may have a few sartorial secrets, they may even think he is smarter (I would be hard pressed to find an example of a dandy that wasn’t bright.) Attention to the right detail can intimidate, create wonder or generally please. His individuality can provoke because he can make the observer realize they are uniform in their banality. The dandy is not afraid to exhibit his personal style can cause resentment, it can engender admiration. And what is style but a canvas, an illusion, a landscape. The dandy paints and mesmerizes the conscious mind with the mastery of his brush strokes.

For a further exposition of this topic the author recommends visiting where there is a selection of erudite essays on this topic.

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