Book Review: Dandysmes

Who better to discuss dandyism than Massimiliano Mocchia di Coggia, the cover star of 2013’s I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman? If only one could have judged that book by its cover! In Dandysmesthe art historian and esthete (and writer for Dandy magazine, another credential) displays the intellectual finesse and historical sensibility that Rose Callahan’s earlier picture book, with its indiscriminate inclusion of grifters, cosplayers and bigoted creeps, lacked entirely. 

There’s a danger in our latter-day dandy syncretism: the rolling of anyone who dresses in flashy or anachronistic jackets and sportcoats into a loaf of the indigestible and incoherent.  By its title, Dandysmes acknowledges various different types of dandies, and different conceptions of the dandy, all seen through the prism of Beau Brummell, the putative dandy zero.  

There are multiple and multifarious dandyisms, all with values Brummell probably never intended.  His intentions, if not his actions, seemed to lack any political component, contrary to the philosophy Baudelaire imputed to the dandy, a liminal and decadent figure.  Brummell’s dress was restrained, but not conservative: contrary to the retrophilic and reactionary motives of certain modern dandies, Brummell’s styles drastically changed contemporary fashion, in fact making it far more casual, a trend those dandies of today decry.  

Brummell was a male thirst trap, a fairly close parent of today’s obnoxious Instagram influencers in creating dramatic hyperbolic vignettes like inviting his admirers to watch him getting dressed in the morning (a commoner’s version of the lever du roi).  He encouraged the most excessive legends about his rigor (such as having different makers for the thumbs of his gloves and the rest of his gloves, polishing his boots with champagne, or going through piles of cravats in the morning before knotting one successfully).  Later dandies favored excess itself rather than that excessive rigor: Count d’Orsay and Disraeli were famous for being decadent fops; Oscar Wilde favored velvets and other flamboyant materials Brummell had spurned for broadcloth; Boni de Castellane (who probably would have rejected the title of dandy out of hand) was an ultraconservative aristocrat who literally made his living off of the privileges of his noble birth.  Mocchia de Coggiola cites them all in his essays.

What he does right is to acknowledge the subversiveness of dandyism, even if he never goes so far as to acknowledge the necessarily political nature of dandyism, indeed of any different style of dress than the unremarkable.  Dandies are those who stand out, at least superficially through the styles of dress they have appropriated and recontextualized from different classes, places or times.  Mocchia di Coggiola recognizes that dandyism today turns Brummell’s old dictum upside down: dandies are those who today’s John Bulls would turn around seeing in the street. 

He provides us a fun repertory those dandy-adjacent fops who fail at elegance, such as the gagà, a dandy’s country cousin, and the retro-eccentric, so obsessed with returning to an imagined old order that they rebuild a synthetic, polyester version.  

The author falls rather wide of the mark in his describing American dandies.  He admits the Anglophilic, Italian remove of his point of view in his chapters on the English gentleman and the upper-class Oxford Hunt Ball, which even still undersells the worship in those pages. Writing so intelligent yet somehow evades the why of how the British look took hold (Waterloo and the shattering of French power, the triumph of Industrial Revolution bourgeoisie – and clothing for convenience – over entrenched aristocracy; the reach of the British mercantile and colonial empire that brought Indian cotton to Manchester and Australian wool to Bradford…) and the persistence of systems of privilege that still allow the insulation of the most favored and often least deserving to continue what is now, despite Brummell, indulgent costume… And just like the politics of clothing, Mochia di Coggiola often describes yet refuses to admit how today all elegance is costume. 

Mocchia di Coggiola comes so close to recognizing this costumery over and over, notably in an interview with Giancarlo Maresca, the founder of the Italian men’s style club Noveporte, that opens with a young lady dumbfoundedly asking a party of dinner-jacketed Noveporte members if they were filming a movie… Like far inferior clothing authors, he occasionally imputes to the well-dressed or well-born unrelated qualities of intelligence, eloquence and good character. 

Through Brummell’s prism, we see different things, apparently: squinting hard enough blinds some to affectation and costume.  Dandysmes is an interesting, entertaining visit to various types of dandies and their habitats.  Ultimately a thoughtful reader should come to the conclusion that its author refrains from: getting dressed like we thought about it can make someone stand out today, even if Mocchia di Coggiola’s dandies are expected to think about other things too.  Alas, we can’t impute the intelligence of that thought from someone’s dress or the eloquence and pedigree of the words they use and quote.

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