It is funny how a word like “Dandy” can have so many meanings; ranging from extravagant to ok, in terms of costume history it refers to a very particular moment in men’s fashion beginning in the second half of the 18th century and developing to, perhaps, its most extreme point in the second and third decades of the 19th century.
While in some ways we are used to thinking of extreme fashion as being a part of female dress – the desire or social pressure placed upon women to alter the form of their bodies, the colour of their skin and hair and to use of an ever-changing array of accessories and garments in order to conform to the demands of fashion – such pressures and vanity have been and continue to be an integral part of male costume too. One of the more visible and enduring of these fashion cults being that of the “Dandies”.
Philip Dawe, 1773, "Pantheon Macaroni"
The term “Dandy” begins to be used in reference to male fashion in the second half of the 18th century along with terms for fashionable males like “Fop” and “Macaroni”. The “Macaroni Club” appeared in England in the mid 18th century and served as a meeting point for aristocratic youths enamoured with the Baroque excess of Italy after their grand tours of Europe; it was a love of excess and drama, however, it did remain a game for aristocratic men and so, while this obsessive grooming did in some ways lead to the development of the Dandy style, it could also be argued that it differed little from other aristocratic follies of previous centuries.
The transition from the meticulously groomed Macaroni to the keenly fashion-conscious Dandy is an interesting one which could be summed up in the patriotic American song Yankee Doodle which dates to the 1770s. This song tells the story of a poor, low ranking soldier on a pony (NOT a horse!) who places a feather in his hat and calls it “macaroni”, wishing to make his fashion statement with the little he had – the refrain “Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle Dandy” introduces this word “Dandy” in an aspirational context; he who wishes to be a gentleman!
This image of a man who seeks to rise above his situation was one of the key themes in Western society at the time, with the American War of Independence and the French Revolution implementing enormous, irreversible ideological changes. Coupled with the Industrial Revolution and the economic power of the growing middle class, distinction was no longer birth right reserved for a few but rather, something that could be purchased.
Mattew Darly, 1772, Joseph Banks The Botanist Joseph Banks, with his fine clothes and Internationalist ideals, was considered a Dandy
With the growth of this new fashion industry certain extremes which were once confined to the upper classes became more common and the competition among wealthy young men to be the most impeccably groomed became stiff. The excessively high cravats kept their heads high so that they had no choice but to literally look down their noses at others, in the pursuit of a triangular torso and perfect posture many men wore corsets and padded their arms and shoulders to create the physique that their decadent lifestyles would not provide. Their Roman-inspired Brutus haircuts alluded to classical ideals even if they were not reflected in the way they lived.
Robert Dighton, 1805, Portrait of Beau Brummel, considered by many to be England's greatest Dandy
These fashion victims and their vanity became a frequent theme for the satirists of the time and for this week I would like to leave you with one of my favourite satirical cartoons about fashion;
“Dandies Dressing” drawn by I.R. Cruikshank in 1818 at the height of the folly:
I. R. Cruikshank, 1818, "Dandies Dressing"
There is so much to say about the enduring influence of the Dandies... but that will have to wait for next time!