We’ve already called I Am Dandy the fashion book of the fall, but we can’t just leave it at that. It’s impossible to give this topic its due without paying tribute to the Oscar Wildes and the Charles Baudelaires — great writers who also knew the importance of always looking good. That’s why we enlisted I Am Dandy co-author Nathaniel Adams to tell us about his favorite literary dandies, past and present. Click through to read about Adams’ picks.
Lord Byron was a contemporary of Beau Brummell, the man upon whom the noble title of dandy was first widely bestowed. All dandies descend in some fundamental sense from Beau Brummell, and he was the model for many dandy characters in Regency and early-Victorian literature, including Thomas Henry Lister’s Granby, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham, and (in part) Byron’s own Don Juan. Byron, who confessed to being a “bit of a dandy” in his youth, once said that the three most important men of his age were Napoleon, Brummell, and himself, and that of the three Brummell was by far the greatest.
Pushkin was an eager disciple of Byron, and Eugene Onegin, the titular character of his great poem was modeled in part on Brummell by way of Don Juan:
Now, when Eugene reached the age Of restless youth’s tumultuous passion, Those years of hope and tender rage, Monsieur was packed off in brisk fashion, And my Eugene was free at last, A London dandy safely classed His hair cut neatly a la mode, Into society he rode. French he spoke and wrote with ease, Danced the mazurka deftly too, Bowed to each acquaintance new, Did all that was required to please. What more is needed? All agreed That here was wit and charm indeed.
Before he became one of England’s great prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli answered to the higher calling of dandyism. Disraeli was a follower of the famous Anglo-French dandy Count d’Orsay, who set the fashion for Europe and who had in his youth greatly impressed Lord Byron with his style and attitude. Disraeli’s own dandyism was flamboyant, wearing rings on all his fingers, brocaded silk waistcoats with gold chains strung across them, striped trousers, and elaborately curled black hair. Young Disraeli was also a novelist and his first success was a society novel called Vivian Grey about a cunning young dandy social climber.
The father of European decadence, Charles Baudelaire was one of the first people to intellectualize dandyism. In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire hails the dandy as the ultimate romantic hero, an outsider who would hold the mirror up to a fallen society were he not so busy looking at himself in it:
Contrary to what a lot of thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are not more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind…. It is, above all the burning desire to create a personal form of originality, within the external limits of social conventions…. dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism, but a dandy can never be a vulgar man…. Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited… Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages… Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy.
Joris Karl Huysmans
J.K. Huysmans was a French author who scandalized Europe with his infamous novel A Rebours, most often translated into English as Against Nature. The novel tells the story of a decadent and hedonistic nobleman dandy named Des Esseintes who retreats from the world into a self-created universe of artificial and unnatural pleasures. Huysmans’ chief model was the Parisian dandy Count Robert de Montesquiou, who was also an inspiration for Marcel Proust’s Baron de Charlus.
Oscar Wilde can be credited in large part for the popular association of dandyism with two other cultural phenomena: aestheticism and sexual deviance (Huysman’s A Rebours was brought as evidence of Wilde’s corruption at his homosexuality trial). In addition to his own eloquent and exuberant dandyism, Wilde created several characters whose wit, élan, and complexity would come to further define the dandy archetype: Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband, Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Author, essayist, caricaturist, and dandy, Max Beerbohm was a friend of Wilde’s and the man responsible for preserving an ironic and satirical strain of dandyism
D’Annunzio was the physical embodiment of countless contradictions present in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Italian poet was a gaudy aesthete and unrepentant ladies’ man, counting among his lovers the infamous Marchesa Casati. Flouting the false divide between the man of action and the man of letters, D’Annunzio flew a plane over enemy lines in the First World War in order to drop propaganda leaflets he had penned himself. Glorifying in his new status as a national hero after the war, D’Annunzio started a private army and captured the disputed town of Fiume, printing up stamps bearing his own monocle visage and drafting a proto-fascist constitution which included the official canonization of poets and musicians as heroes of the state.
While not exactly a dandy himself (he was a bit too straight-laced and conservative in his attitudes to go all the way), Waugh created two of the most distinctly dandyish characters of his time in Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche. Waugh drew his inspiration in part from the overlapping circles of dandy-aesthetes and glamorous Bright Young People in which he ran in the period between the wars. Harold Acton and Brian Howard were the two main exemplars of the former and Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant of the latter.
Known to his critics as “Luscious Lucius,” the now sadly neglected Beebe was one of the most popular society columnists of 20th-century America. Beebe was considered the most glamorous and elegant man in the country, and people across the nation read his witty syndicated columns each week for a glimpse into the rarified world of New York high society. Beebe and his boyfriend lived in a private railroad car fitted with the most perfectly elegant fixtures and furniture, and he once appeared in full morning dress on the cover of Life magazine. Once, when asked what made someone a gentleman, Beebe coolly replied, “No pins.”
Perhaps the most famous literary dandy of the second half of the 20th century, Wolfe is as famous for his white suits as he is for his Left-baiting cultural criticism. Wolfe set himself apart from the mainstream of his generation in both dress and attitude, wryly sending up the self-satisfied liberal establishment as it allied itself with the would-be counterculture. Like James McNeill Whistler before him, Wolfe embodies the dandy-as-gadfly, and he can also be credited with immortalizing the famous New York trial lawyer and dandy “Fast” Eddie Hayes (who we profiled in I Am Dandy) as the character Tommy Killian in The Bonfire of the Vanities, which he also dedicated to Hayes.
One of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, Gay Talese is the perfect dandy without an agenda. His sartorial style exists independently from his writing in the sense that the way he dresses isn’t his usual choice of subject (he’s written about the history of The New York Times, the Verrazano Bridge, the mafia, and sex in 1970s America, to say nothing of his famous virtuosic profiles, which include Frank Sinatra, Joe Dimaggio, Joe Lewis, and Peter O’Toole). But attire is as central an aspect of his life as writing is, and he attends to both with astonishing dedication. Talese’s Italian forebears were tailors, and he speaks of writing as stitching together a story, constructing a garment of prose from whole cloth.