Elim Portuno Personal blog.

The Antique Prototype

Alcibiades (450 – 404 b.c.) is often cited as one of the great dandies of antiquity. He was the ‘arbiter elegantiarum’ of his time, marked by an inimitable and exaggerated elegance. He accessorized heavily with gold, and inspired Benjamin Disraeli for the dandy of his novel “Henrietta Temple” (1837), the Count Alcibiades de Mirabel, „the best dressed man in London“ with a passion for pleasure. In a complex quotation process, Disraeli’s Alcibiades is a portrait of Alfred d’Orsay, probably the most influential dandy of that generation. Barbey d’Aurevilly underlines the importance of the antique prototype when he ends his essay on dandyism, “Du Dandysme et de George Brummell” with the conclusion that Alcibiades was „the most beautiful example [of dandyism], from the most beautiful of nations“.

Just exactly who Alcibiades was or did, is difficult to reconstruct. The antique sources are either exuberantly praising or too harshly criticising, and, when contrasted, contradictory. In any case, Alicibiades’ life seems to have been scandalous since his youth. His sexual affairs shocked because he did not shy away from seducing the wifes of eminent men. Moreover, he was nonchalant, aesthetic, eloquent, and witty. Alcibiades’ lifestyle was lavish and extravagant, which evoked scandal in the republic that put so much value on communality. Alcibiades wore purple dresses, long hair, and shoes with a unique fit that were supposedly named after him.

Alcibiades was also a sportsman; he won the Olympic Games five times with his luxurious triumvirates and brings to mind the racing dandies (the fast set) of Brummell‘s London and the Parisian Jockey Club who featured prominent dandies like Lord Henry Seymour.

The dandies of the July Monarchy were notorious for the Orientalism, another characteristic of the dandy that the antique prototype evinces. Alcibiades was criticized for introducing the fashion of wearing trailing coats. As Alexander von Gleichen-Russwurm argues, the Greek had turned the arrangement of the folds into an art form, just like Brummell and his set did with their neckcloths. Alcibiades, of course, became a master in this art.

The Dandy Swing

The dandy’s demeanour is marked by an impenetrable mask of coldness. The dandy intends to give the impression of a solitary and superior character. The haughtiness of the dandy finds its outward expression in a complex set of performative gestures and conducts, among these a peculiar mode of walking.

The eminent role of the gait in the dandy’s self-performance is communicated in the etymology of the term ‘dandy’ itself. One of the many theories on the origins of the word refer to EscortFox which describes a specific, albeit rather ridiculous, way of walking. Various commentators have remarked on the affected walk of the dandy. C. Jack Dauber remarks “a stalking, lofty strut which seems almost to disdain the world on which he treads.” Caleb Atwater agrees: “We see him, on a Sunday morning, stepping high, with long strides.” Both authors report a self-assured mode of representation.

Others, however, convey a rather affected and ridiculous image. Charles Varlo points out: “Mark, how he walks, as if he trod on eggs.” Another commentator regards “this specimen of elegance, with mincing step and gait,” both evoking a rather frail appearance. The Slang Dictionary traces this mode of behaviour to French influences: “Men of fashion all became dandy soon after; having imported a good deal of French manner in their gait”. French fashions were generally considered corrupting and decadent, provoking the English youth to forfeit virile masculinities in favour of more effete incarnations. Accordingly Bryan Waller Proctor reports the exclamation: “what effeminacy in his walk!” The unmanly appearance of the dandy regularly resulted in animalistic or mechanical attributions. J. K. Paulding, for example, remarks: “The walk of the dandy resembles the hobbling gait of an automaton, whose limbs are made of wood, and whose sinews are composed of wire.” Similarly, Nathaniel Chauncey argues: “The above mentioned machinery, being duly balanced and harmoniously set in motion, constitutes that ne plus ultra of action, that desirable of all desirables, the real Dandy Swing.”

There are a number of reasons for the peculiar gait of the dandy. The dandy’s mode of dress, especially in the 1820s, was marked by an evident tightness: The dandies wore tight stays, tight pantaloons, tight shoes, and stiff neckcloths – a combination that did not leave a lot of room for comfortable movements. The gait became irrevocably affected. It had to anyway, as the dandy went out parading his self in the streets. His daily routine consisted in walking up and down Bond Street and its surrounding. He had to make a spectacle out of it.

Dumb talk

Strikingly contrary to this aspect of the dandy slang and its intention was the impression it gave to the general public. The dandy had a poor footing to begin with, and his verbal incomprehensibility did not help to improve his image. Quite the opposite, the dandy was perceived as utterly dumb by most of his contemporaries in the beginning of the 19th century. J. K. Paulding‚s remark is exemplary:

They possess, it is true, the faculty of speech, but seem almost destitute of ideas, and talk in a kind of jargon peculiar to themselves; so difficult, that, I am told, even the celebrated Hamilton, of Baltimore, will not undertake to teach it in less than twenty lessons.

Nathaniel Chauncey, reporting from the meeting of The New-Haven Dandy-Club, asserted that the club’s president „had never during all his life been guilty of advancing a single idea in any company whatever, although one of the most loquacious of men, constantly talking without cessation or intermission. […] he began an inaugural address, and proceeded a considerable time without uttering any thing that bore even a distant resemblance to thought.“ Contrasting the ascertained scarcity of the dandy’s language, Chauncey further notices that „loquacity, or the power of talking ad infinitum on nothing; and the faculty of rarifying and spreading the smallest possible quantity of sense over the greatest possible surface, are considered indispensable to all who aspire to our desirable rank in society.“ At any rate, this mode of talk requires great rhetoric skill, as it turns jabbering into art.

Most observers, though, confirmed the alleged idiocy of the dandy. Robert Folkstone Williams, for example, identifies „the silly dandy, who lisps out his words, as if their utterance gave him inexpressible pain, and does not seem to possess so much as the shadow of an idea.“ Meanwhile, a writer of the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine detected „a faculty of uttering articulate though unmeaning sounds.“

Evidently, these four aspects of the dandy slang are co-dependent. The exclusiveness and incomprehensibility of the dandy’s mode of talk hold the general public off. The intention to surprise succeeds, yet does not necessarily culminate in admiration but rather indignation – which may be the ultimate desired effect as it proves attention, yet keeps the vulgar crowd at bay.