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.