There has been a long-standing link in history between art and political statement. As society shifts from one historical era to the next, art provides its mirror, reflecting the changing social mores, class tensions, gender relations and fashions that shift alongside it. In particular, one figure reappears in these transitory moments in history, a symbol of modernity and ushering in the new with his up-to-the-minute fashions: the dandy. Popularised in 19th century Europe, the dandy was defined by his pursuit of refinement in fashion and leisure, a careful cultivation of self, and his “burning desire to create an original look, on the edge of society’s conventional limits,” (Baudelaire in Eco 2004, pg. 334). The dandy was defined in Baudelaire’s Painter of Modern Life, which shares the philosophies of the ancient Greek, Epicurus that, faced with the ephemerality of human existence, one should devote themselves to the pursuit of sensual pleasure (Bergsma 2007, pg. 398). With roots in the Hellenistic era that extend into the modern day, this essay will examine the figure of the dandy and his appearance, in different incarnations, at the rifts between political ages where questions of identity stand “at the forefront of cultural consciousness,” (Bell 2006, pg. 292). In particular, it will look at the way in which the 19th century European dandy worked to redefine the way in which masculinity was presented, as the modern world shifted from aristocracy to democracy. This consciousness towards the way in which gender was presented remained at the forefront of dandyism into the 1920s, where androgynous dress gave women greater mobility and opportunity within the public sphere. By examining the images of three notable dandies – Oscar Wilde, Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe, we can chart the ways in which the dandy has operated as a subversive figure, using fashion as a performance of identity to permeate the social order and reflect changing attitudes towards class and gender in modern society.
We find the birthplace of the dandy in the gardens of Epicurus, who developed his philosophy of aestheticism during the Hellenistic period. This period was bookended by the death of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Roman Empire, with the Hellenistic consciousness being shaped by the rapid expansion of their world and exposure to new regions and cultures (Bergsma 2007, pg. 398). In this transitory period, philosophies that were previously popular, for example, Aristotle and Plato, no longer provided the answers people sought, and so Epicurus’ new philosophies offered fearful citizens who struggled to find a place in this new world a place of sanctuary in his garden (pg. 399). Epicurus recognised the transience of human life, and advocated that those short years be spent seeking pleasure, and avoiding pain (pg. 398). This idea was later taken up by Decadent writer, Walter Pater, who recommended the pursuit of pleasure regardless of consequence, in light of “the splendour of our experience and its awful brevity,” (Bell 2006, pg. 285). The philosophies of Epicurus persist in the formation of the dandy, as he cautioned that pleasure should be sought in moderation, as “indulgence would increase desires and make a person dependent on the whims of fortune,” (Bergsma 2007 pg. 398). This idea of restraint became a later proponent of dandyism, which advocated a refined style of dress, opposing the gaudy ornamentation and display of wealth favoured by the Regency. This sentiment would re-emerge in Wilde’s writings, with his idea that adherence to a material fashion “starves one part of the community and encumbers the other,” (Wilde in Cook 2010), opting instead for an austere yet refined manner of dress. He writes also of the value of experience over possession, stating that “Man thought the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be,” (Wilde in Cook 2010). However, despite Epicurus’ insistence upon restraint, his philosophy has been historically misconstrued as hedonism for its pleasure-seeking ways.
This sense of pursuit of pleasure above all else was revived by the Decadent movement, who reacted against the increasing industrialisation of the 19th century, which favoured functionality over beauty (Eco 2004, pg. 330). The Decadents responded by freeing their art from purpose, and the moralistic and religious limitations traditionally imposed upon it (Bell 2006, pg. 284). Wilde wrote that, in looking at a work of art, one should not “be dreaming of what it symbolises, but rather loving it for what it is,” (in Bell 2006, pg. 285). So, the Decadents produced “art for art’s sake”, for the sole purpose of being beautiful.
However, despite the Decadent’s promotion of an art without purpose, they were not entirely free from engagement with contemporary ideology. Amidst the Decadent movement, the dandy emerged as the epitome of aesthetic experience, an example of lived beauty in which “life was not to be dedicated to art, art was to be applied to life (Eco 2004, pg. 334). The dandy represented first and foremost a burning desire to create an original look, on the edge of society’s own conventional limits,” (Baudelaire in Eco 2004, pg. 334). By occupying the marginal space of the limits of convention, the dandy presented himself as antagonistic towards the prevailing cultural and aesthetic trends (Ledger 2007, pg. 9). The dandy represents a negotiation with traditional gender conventions, redefining the way in which masculinity was presented. Victorian England was dominated by rigid social mores that defined the realms of men and women, leaving no room for ambiguity – even in fashion (Ramert 2009, pg. 451). Women’s figures were constrained by corsets and covered from neck to foot to preserve their demureness, while bourgeois male clothing was functional and avoided adornments that might be associated with female dress. Napoleon Sarony’s famous portrait of Oscar Wilde (1882) provides an example of the way in which the dandy’s fashion opposed the traditional presentation of masculinity. Wilde wears his hair long and wavy, and his dress is slim-fitting and fashionable, subtly adorned with braiding on his smoking jacket and bows on the toes of his shoes. He poses languorously on the couch with a melancholy, pensive expression as he contemplates a novel. These signifiers operate in tandem to produce a reading of the dandy as a man of leisure, devoted to the cultivation of refined tastes both in fashion and intellect. Wilde’s rejection of Victorian values takes on a deeper significance due to his own marginal position as an Irish immigrant and homosexual, obliged to hide his socially unacceptable inclinations (Bell 2006, pg. 291). The dandy reveals a tension between the traditional depiction of masculinity in art, cut in the image of the Christian Victorian gentlemen where men are muscular, active, and heroic, representing the sphere of industry (Cook 2010). The effeminate and aesthetic dandy offers an alternate masculinity, grounded in the realm of leisure and devoting his energies to the pursuit of a beautiful life, rather than wealth or status. The dandy presents a vehicle for “breaking with convention”, transgressing the dominant associations of masculinity and creating a sense of ambiguity suggestive of a world in which the barriers between class and gender are becoming fluid (Bell 2006, pg. 292).
The sexually fluid dandy became a particularly pertinent figure amidst the avant-garde art scene in early 20th century New York. The avant-garde maintained the spirit of the Decadents, espousing a lived aesthetic experience. They shared the dandy’s up-to-the-minute modernity, viewing their identity as being “of the moment”, and echoing Baudelaire’s desire for originality (Fillan-Yeh 1995, pg. 35). The 20th century dandy flourished in Greenwich Village, flavoured by the climate of political activism, feminism and personal and sexual liberation, which celebrated marginality and distance from conventional politics (pg. 33). This time, the persona of the dandy was opened to women as well. In a world where women were increasingly participating in the public and artistic sphere, the guise of androgyny subverted conventional modes of gender individuation, and allowed for greater mobility within male dominated institutions. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe both refashioned the image of the dandy to the needs of their art, and by contrasting their interpretations we can build a picture of the interplay between art as performance and political statement.
In 1921, Duchamp collaborated with Man Ray to produce a series of photographs of the artist dressed as his alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy. The character of Rrose hearkens to the Decadent’s manifesto of art as life, and preference for art over nature, the artificial over the real (Bell 2006, pg. 284). Baudelaire considered fashion to be “a sublime reformation of nature,” (in Bell 2006, pg. 290), and as Duchamp arranges himself in female fashion, he is able to reform his identity. Her name is a construction: an Anglicisation of the French, “Eros – c’est la vie.” Asides from the costuming, the image has been retouched to soften its focus, enhancing its subject’s mysterious allure. Rrose’s artificiality is further enhanced by the fact that her hands are not Duchamp’s own, but those of his friend, Grace Ewing (Fillin-Yeh 1995, pg. 33). She represents the literary figure of the 19th Century femme-fatale, the new woman who had begun to intrude upon the public sphere, and whose emergence reveals anxieties about modernity, urbanisation, and the place for women within it.
Georgia O’Keeffe shared Duchamp’s proclivity towards crossdressing, as evidenced in her portrait taken by Alfred Stieglitz in the same year. Where Baudelaire had formerly placed women in opposition to the dandy, as dazzling enchantresses inspiring horror for their affiliation with the natural world (Hadlock 2002, pg. 63), in the 20th century the persona of the dandy created a new self-definition for avant-garde female artists, allowing them to negotiate a world that was still dominated by men. For O’Keeffe, cross-dressing became a way of addressing the inequities of culturally defined categories of gender (Fillan-Yeh 1995, pg. 36). Here, O’Keeffe steps into the elegant and refined mode of the 19th century dandy, wearing a men’s suit jacket and shirt open at the collar, and a hat to conceal her hair. She embodies a cool and confident androgyny, challenging the camera with the intensity of her gaze as she uses the signifiers of masculinity to subvert it. By flaunting the male dress and assertive body language that was deemed unnatural for a woman at the time, she embodies the dandy’s ability to cross the boundaries of convention, and dares viewers to question her right to operate in the 20th century world (Fillan-Yeh 1995, pg. 36).
Baudelaire placed his definition of the dandy at the fringes of society, as someone fuelled by a burning desire to be original and push the limits of convention (in Eco 2004, pg. 330). As such, the guise of the dandy held an appeal amongst the marginalised, like Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality was an affront to the conservative Victorian era, or Georgia O’Keeffe, whose femaleness displaced her in the male-dominated early 20th century. However, this marginality, or “out of placeness” merely gave the dandy a new place from which to create their art (Fillin-Yeh 1995, pg. 36). The dandy’s weapon was his fashion, his identity a performance of a meticulously crafted artifice that revealed anxieties about changing social structures and the role of gender within them. Baudelaire saw the dandy as a “last spark of heroism” (in Nicolay 2000, pg. 329), a fierce individualist and champion of modernity whose fluid and ever-changing identity can be reworked according to the whims of history (Bell 2006, pg. 290).