The Dandy was a well-known "type" in Regency
life and literature
: typically a young man without noble
lineage (or even a visible means of support) who nonetheless lived a life dedicated to social activities, art appreciation
, and shopping
-- in short, most of the obsessions of urban folks today. They were most often found at the popular private men's clubs
, such as White's (which set up a bow window
specifically for their need to see and be seen from the street), coffee houses
, and first and formost, the privately held dances at Almack's
Assembly Hall every Wednesday. The aim of the original dandies was to be more refined, more mannered, and more in
than the titled and wealthy they emulated, and for a time, they were. While coexisting with the Romantic period
in literature and art, their focus was rigidly classical
: Nature was something that intruded on their lives in the form of sudden rainstorms, unruly horses, and aging, passion
was an impediment to keeping a cool and rational manner, so necessary to easy social intercourse, and the world of the supernatural
could not exactly be said not to exist, but was a subject better left to the experts
Beau Brummell set the tone: unlike most social butterflies before him, his keynote was not extravagance, per se, but a calculated refinement we'd now call "cool". He wore very simple clothing -- but cut and tailored to fit perfectly, he spurned the cosmetics and perfume of the previous generations, preferring instead to be clean in face, body, and clothing (his method of shaving was widely emulated, and he liked to boast he did not stink), he had no country estates or coaches (but a perfect little town house, nonetheless). His collections were of small, inexpensive, but exquisite artworks: snuffboxes, Dutch domestic paintings from the century or so previous, and the like. His manners were excellent (if he liked you) and maddeningly sarcastic (if he didn't), he never ever, lost his temper in public, and preferred simply to ignore people who didn't agree with him. Unlike many other gentlemen of the day, he didn't like exercise, which at the time, meant either horseback riding or boxing, preferring "carriage exercise", which meant riding in a carriage: healthwise, he drank little alcohol (mostly in the form of punch and other mild drinks) and ate well, but in small portions. (His dislike for vegetables was legendary: he once owned to have "eaten a pea" at one point, and the resulting protein-rich diet contributed to his kidney failure later on.) Also somewhat dismayingly, to his critics, he appeared to have no sex life whatsoever, being unfailingly charming towards the women at the balls at Almack's, but never having an affair. (No, he wasn't gay either. A mystery on the level of that of Paul Erdös, or Glenn Gould, perhaps. Or maybe people weren't that horny back then?)
Dandies were the subject of endless consternation from both press and pulpit: whatever did these young men do, considering that they seemed to have no larger plans for their lives, either religion or politics, whatsoever? After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, the notion of the dandy spread to the sons of the newly-rich French middle class, who, confusing dandies with the "sporting set", established the Jockey Club, in emulation of their British idols, while in Britain, the notion of the dandy was beginning to become a popular theme for advertising, especially for off-the-rack menswear. Actual dandies were somewhat out of fashion by the 1820's: a new sense of duty in life (which was to become the exaggerated morality of the Victorian era) meant that even the most celebrated dandy of the day, Count D'Orsay, was obliged to become a portrait painter in order to prove that he was good for something (his chief occupation, however, was as house pet to Lady Blessington and her husband -- here again, no one knows what the sexual life of the man was, living, as he did, in a cottage in their garden).
Meanwhile, in France, the notion was beginning to change again: Charles Baudelaire, and the other Symbolists and Decadents championed dandies as social rebels, which would have certainly shocked Brummell. Dandies were repurposed as art and social critics, and in this manner, the figure of the dandy became fashionable again in the persons of Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, and the like at century's end, and even spread to America, where a representation of a Regency dandy (Eustace Tilley) in full kit, regarding his fellow-creature, the butterfly, became the logo (and annual cover art) for The New Yorker. The dandy pose, suit, monocle and all, became the first recorded lesbian style as well, a favorite of Romaine Brooks and her circle.
Nowadays, there are but few dandies left. Mostly elderly homosexuals living in the larger cities of the Northeastern United States, they live for their book collections, their tea sets, and, always, their twice-yearly visits to their tailors. A shame.