The dandy was a rebel. A rebel who wielded the weapon of his unique refinement to express his contempt toward the triviality, hypocrisy,materialism, prudery of the Victorian bourgeoisie . The dandy did not follow fashion. Such a superior being would have never accepted to be homologated to the rude, tasteless masses. What is fashion after all, but a never-ending process of homologation, which not necessarily coincides with taste. The dandy embodied unattainable models of elegance and sophistication as he was the worshipper of taste, one who elevated aesthetics to a living religion, as Charles Baudelaire affirmed, the elect ” for who beautiful things mean only beauty“. (Oscar Wilde)
Yet, when the word dandy first appeared, it had nothing to do with superiority and refinement, but rather, with mockery. We find word dandy, in fact, in a song, ” Yankee Doodle Dandy“, which was sung by the British troops to mock the disorganized “Yankees” with whom they served in the French and Indian war at the end of the 18th century: “Yankee Doodle went to town Riding on a pony/ He stuck a feather on his hat / And called it macaroni/ Yankee Doodle keep it up/ Yankee Doodle dandy..…” In short the Yankees were so unsophisticated that they thought that simply sticking a feather on a cap would make them fashionable like “Macaronis”, which was the label given to those young Englishmen, who adopted feminine mannerism a highly extravagant attire . Hence, the insinuation was that the colonists were womanish and not very masculine.
The first recognized dandy was George Bryan Brummell, who became absolutely iconic in Regency England, so that he had the Prince Regent himself among his admirers and friends. ” Ever unpowdered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain dark blue coat, he was always perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing much perfectly starched linen, all freshly laundered, and composed with an elaborately knotted cravat”, an accurate simplicity difficult to imitate. It seems,in fact, that the Prince attempted in many ways to match the elegance of the famous counselor, but all his efforts proved vain. George IV ventured to launch a new trend in order to emulate the style of Brummel, that of the waistcoat unbuttoned, but the result was a resounding failure.
The fact is that the “Beau”, as he was soon nicknamed, was truly inimitable and not only for his attire. His personal habits, such as a meticulous attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing exerted a great influence on the habits of the upper polite society, who began to do likewise. His elegance was not simply based on his appearance but also on his poses and especially on his way to make conversation: essential, acute, often snobbish, with superficial humor and quick repartee. Even women found him so charming and charismatic to consider his judgment priority over the same opinion of their husbands. But he was not the kind of man who enjoyed the excess of compliments. True to the motto of the quintessential dandy – “Stay in the company for the time needed to produce an effect: when the effect is produced, go away” – Brummell used to respond to invitations to parties and receptions operating quick and discrete raids ; incursions from which he took leave with a judgment, usually a joke, intended, after his departure, to echo long in the speeches of the other guests.
Unfortunately for him, along with the passion for elegance Brummell started to be attracted by gambling, a passion that will lead him to his downfall. He lived the last years of his life on the third floor of the Hotel d’Angleterre, in Caen, where he became a fallen hero for tourists who knew him and asked to have lunch next to the famous master of elegance. Not even the admiration of the people, however, changed his sad fate: “The clarity of his appearance had tarnished […] when you met him on the street, he was only a shabby and dirty old man“. And after the decline, madness followed.