The Dandy and the Aesthete


How fancy can a man be, and still be a Dandy?

 Gary Cooper: a modern dandy. Notice the subtle hues, tie complimenting the pinstripe suit,  just enough cuff showing beyond his sleeve, and sharp handkerchief square.

 Oscar Wilde: a Victorian Aesthete. Notice the exaggerated collar, thick tie knot, large boutonnière, lots of shirt cuff, busy handkerchief square, and loud pin stripe slacks. Notice also the affected way he hold his cigarette as opposed to Gary Cooper. [and this photo is from later in his career- he was more flamboyant when he was young].

The history of dandyism is one littered with brightly colored figures, and notable talents; wits of all sorts have donned their finest attire and shown themselves at social settings as sons of the fine art of dandyism, and heirs of Beau Brummel's legacy. But is every fancy peacock who ventures out in a rainbow of colors with accessories galore a dandy?  

The answer is obvious; no.  So, what then, distinguishes the fop from the dandy? 

Dandyism as an historical movement began with Beau Brummel who gained access to the highest levels of English society, even to an intimate friendship with the Prince Regent himself, not on his heritage, title or namesake...but on his fine dress, manners and speech. Brummel was a man of society, and society loved him, obsessed over him for that fact.  But Brummel wasn't a peacock, in fact far from it. Brummel, with his revolution in fashion, toned down the Baroque extravagances then in practice and replaced them with sober, clean-lined elegance. Did Brummel wear color? Yes, but plain ones. Tan, blue, duck [a light yellow] and of course black and white. Brummel abhorred the extreme use of color, and chose subtle hues as his trademark.

So where did foppery come from?

  The idea of fancy dress in society is an old one, dating to well before Brummel's time.  The Renaissance had its fops. Sir Walter Raleigh was said to be quite a peacock and even enjoyed a stroll while in prison along its very walls decked out in his Renaissance finery. The Macaronis of the 18th century are but another example. This club of gentlemen carefully cultivated their style until it was the very height of refined extravagance.  And who could ignore Louis XIV who gave the world a standard of sumptuously dressed monarchs, and courts which dazzled in gold jewels and lace. 

History is full of peacocks, but that is the contrary of the dandy. The dandy is the essence of society, the elegant touch to any party, and the sparkling wit with which to enliven any conversation. He is certainly not the first thing that catches your eye when you walk into a room, nor loud spot in a sidewalk stroll. He is just the one that you most remember, perhaps not even realizing why.

So what distinguishes the fop from the dandy? Well, it's a combination of color, style, and a certain je ne sais quoi. Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote in his "Du Dandysme et du Georges Brummel" that dandyism is an almost indescribable thing, a manner of being, of carriage, a sort of perfection in grace. That is a dandy.  

So what is a Aesthete? 

An Aesthete is a modern fop [foppery having really disappeared with the French Revolution and the end of the Baroque era]  simply put is an artist, writer, or other man who desires attention for whatever reason, and uses his clothes and antics to get it.  

Barbey d'Aurevilly also writes that  it is an intrinsically English thing, a curiosity of English vanity; the French, he said, "will never produce a dandy". But is it  merely a question of nationality, for while Brummel was English, Disraeli was also born in England [though obviously not of Anglo-Saxon heritage] and played the aesthete for a while before going into politics, he was certainly never really a dandy. Oscar Wilde did the same thing, and again being born in Ireland, hence not truly English, he was the most notorious aesthete in Victorian times, even changing the flavor of dandyism for a time. He, however, was no dandy. The aristocracy never took note of him, and he was really only a very popular artist, and ultimately his demise was that of an artist; so is dandyism a particularly English thing? Was Barbey right?

This brings me to the crucial distinction; a dandy is a man of society. His home is at the parties and salons which those of good taste and refinement frequent. His he enjoys the theater, the opera, and the playhouse. He enjoys sports like dancing, horses, fencing, and maybe sailing or such; he is a man of leisure and pleasure. 

The aesthete is an artist who promotes himself and frequently his art, or catches attention that he might make his name better known by means of fancy dress and polite [or, God forbid, less than polite] antics like riding around the neighborhood on an antique bicycle while dressed in loud plaids, getting crucified, or just wearing fancy/outlandish clothes.  The aesthete is basically harmless and only seeks to advance his personal artistic pursuits, or to make a name for himself.

So in resume, a aesthete is an artist who uses fashion [combined with antics] to promote himself and his art. The dandy is a man of society who uses fashion, manners and conversation  to please, seduce and amuse those he admires to permit him access the higher rungs of society.

They are very much different, the aesthete and the dandy, although they seem similar. One will catch your eye right away, the other will make an impression on you you will never forget.