Book Review: Les Chroniques de L'Homme Élégant

The struggle for sartorial revolution creates strange alliances. It’s rare to find another style writer with whom I would link arms and, in the words of an Internet sage, “face God and walk backwards into hell.“ Because of his erudition, wit and dogmatic insight, Le Chouan des villes, the (collective) pseudonym for the writers of the now-dormant blog of the same name, is one of them. Les chroniques de l’homme éléganta collection of essays by Le Chouan, is fascinating to read.

Key to understanding the author’s viewpoint is what a Chouan is, or was. Chouan was the name given to bourgeois counterrevolutionaries during the various revolutions in France in the 18th and 19th centuries, men of the secure classes who took to the bush to fight against what they saw as an equalizing force that chopped down those of superior talent or breeding. The very name Chouan supposedly refers to the fake owl cries (an owl in French is the onomatopoeic chouette) these rebels against revolution used to communicate. A chouan of the cities (des villes) must be rebelling against today’s cosmopolitan conformity. Indeed, the book’s preface itself calls Le Chouan a “reactionary anarchist.” 

That reaction is not the completely blinkered foolishness of certain American writers fetishizing a pedigreed past which would never have admitted them. Le Chouan intelligently discusses the sapeursthe flamboyantly colorful dandies of Congo-Brazzaville and neighboring states, recognizing the politics of their highly choreographed displays and dedication to unreasonably sharp clothes. And with little of the cultural condescension of other commentators, he reminds us that these dandies find not just liberation, but a joy in clothing that others of us, for all our obsession, do not. Le chouan brings the same erudition to essays on historical dandies, not just Beau Brummell but Barbey d’Aurevilly and Charles Baudelaire, two of the first writers to create a politics of dandyism. 

It’s interesting that Le Chouan admires the dandyism of Baudelaire: on one hand he did write that the dandy appears in a time before democracy has become all-powerful and when aristocracy is only on its knees, not completely extinguished, as if to mourn the ancien régimeOn the other hand, he also wrote a prose poem called Beat Up the Poorexhorting us to beat up the less fortunate in order to finally force them to rise up and smash the system. Not quite in line with Le Chouan’s conclusion (to an essay about the tailors of dictators before their overthrows) mourning the humbling and execution of the “weak but surely not cruel” Louis XVI “during the Enlightenment,” as if to impeach that period.

Nonetheless, Le Chouan has the realism rare among #menswear writers to recognize the ridiculousness of the oft-repeated clichés that elegance is to be unnoticed. Today, to be elegant requires dressing with care, and to care about how you look generally is to stand out, particularly if you do not care to dress in the current fashion. Le Chouan notes – as I’ve brooded myself – that to be elegant may be dressing so as to be noticed by the tiny number of people who still recognize or care about such things, a code among these retrograde renegades, more swan than owl. 

Across these many, many essays the theme stands out of men ill at ease with their time, which may be why even Baudelaire’s conception of the dandy (straddling the chaos between two epochs) appeals to Le Chouan. Towards the end of this book, Le Chouan sets out his ideal, the honnête hommea term coined in the 17th century that has been translated as a “gentleman” but more precisely would be an upstanding or upright man (no, Isle, not erect). The honnête homme ideal originated in the aftermath of another French revolt, the Fronde: this upright man was the non-aristocratic bourgeois, the moral paragon who knew his place in the social order and who treated correct dress and manners as a social debt: a sign of respect for others. Le Chouan mourns this fellow, calls for his rejuvenation if not rebirth. It is telling that Le Chouan’s friend Dominique Lelys, the designer for the defunct French brand Arnys, is coming out with a perfume called L’eau d’honnête hommeAs I write in my book, Arnys’ designs recalled pre-Brummell regional French costumes; Lelys himself recently ran for political office as the candidate for a neo-monarchist party. Like latter-day Diogenes(es?), they seek, somewhere, an honnête homme

Like Le Chouan, I feel tensions with the current time (having just received a targeted ad that says, “You can get away with wearing sweatpants everywhere,” how could I not?). However, I feel less nostalgia for a vanished time of supposedly greater order than disappointment with our failures to keep the promises of progress; I do not feel dress is part of a social contract with others. I dress for myself and still think it’s important to treat other people decently. I find decorum is commonly confused with moral worth. But I applaud Le Chouan’s book; it’s a treat to find a clothing book I can engage with intelligently and fence with rather than want to nuke from space, as the kids say. Plus it has the illustrations of the always entertaining sartorial cartoonist Romée de Saint-Céran, a.k.a. RoSaCe. A thought-provoking pleasure to read.

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