Dandies in the Digital Collections

Some of the earliest accounts of the “dandy” appear in the eighteenth century when it was generally defined as a person who places excessive importance on his or her clothing and personal appearance.  The Digital Collections captures eighteenth and nineteenth century European responses to and descriptions of the dandy.  Specifically, the collection contains Portuguese material with laws and ethics cautioning against excessive attention to one’s dress, as well as exhibition catalogs describing British and French artists and personalities who were celebrated dandies of their time.

The 1982 Met Museum exhibition catalog, La Belle Époque, reproduces Giovanni Boldini’s (1842-1931) portrait of the flamboyant Count Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921).  A known dandy himself, Boldini captures the count’s haughty air.  The description in the catalog describes Montesquiou as an “aesthete extraordinaire” who “occupied one of the most prominent positions in Parisian society.”  He is also described as a scolding dandy who “worshiped the exquisite, and in its name he meted out admonishments to all, both verbally and through a sizable literary production.”

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The Costume Institute’s 2006 exhibition, Anglomania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, describes the English dandy at length, crediting George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840) as the originator of a type of Regency dandyism that influenced decades of design from the Duke of Windsor all the way through to late-twentieth-century Punks.  The catalog states Beau Brummell’s “emphasis on a relaxed, effortless appearance (achieved through arduous dressing rituals) was central to the dandy creed, [and he] is commonly regarded as the greatest exemplar of Regency dandyism.”  The catalog includes an illustration of Richard Dighton’s caricature, “The Dandy Club” (1818), which conveys the extremes the dandy went to in order to achieve a strong masculine profile, often resulting in almost comical effects.

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In addition to French and English descriptions of the 18th and 19th Century dandy, the collection contains Portuguese morality poems and plays, reports, and sumptuary laws warning about the perils of fashion fads.  A narrative written by a dandy in 1784 Lisbon describes the dangers of a hunt while wearing “various garments of silk” which, according to this account, attract vermin.

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Another account takes the form of an instructive poem written by a father lamenting his dandy daughter’s transformation into a “woman of fashion”:

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He laments: “You used to fight with me to make me agree to buy the ridiculous garments. When I told you I did not like you in those fashions, you had a fit and threw a tantrum.  You liked your dress short (actually the skirt lifted up on one side) and did not see that this was madness.  Our ladies of fashion do not realize that what they wear makes them look ugly, and they don’t care as long as it’s ‘fashionable.’  They will follow the most horrible taste as long as they think it is modern.”  The title of the poem, Amusing and instructive poem about a lady-dandy, who flew through the air by her scarf, and by the hood of her cape, is a reference to the invention of the balloon in 1783 (see our Highlights post about “balloon mania” here).

A particularly colorful Portuguese text, written in 1788, is replete with reproaches about the dandy’s excessive intake of sweets and the fines and penalties imposed on them: “The bombastic title calls our attention to the fact that it took more than the right dress to make a Dandy.  He had to love luxury and eat the kind of food which was in fashion.  His lifestyle included an addiction to sweets.  There were times when our Dandies always had a candy between their teeth.  The people did not like it.  Because your love of sweets is threatening to make you a glutton, a trial is being held to bring all sweets to justice.”  The offensive candies included licorice, cheese cake, plum preserve and rum tarts.

The Portuguese texts all come from the Costume Institute collection, while the exhibition catalogs both come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications collection.