Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 18, 2002
Susan Fillin-Yeh, ed. Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture New York University Press, 2001. Cloth

See Susan Fillin-Yeh and Robert Moore’s response to this review

The title of this anthology is misleading: The collection is not consistently about dandies, only tangentially about fashion, and the word “finesse” disappears after the title. The book offers both less and more than the title promises, skimping on the historical specificity of dandyism but expanding the reach of this term. At its worst, it simply spices common art-historical knowledge with a new nomenclature. At its best—and several of the essays are excellent—it affords new insight into overlooked aspects of modernism and even casts familiar images in a revealing new light.

Unfortunately, Dandies starts with the worst. To justify what the introduction portentously calls “New Strategies for a Theory of Dandies,” the preface asserts the historical dominance of “Western European upper-class dandyism—traditional, mainstream, and gendered as male” (xi). Dandyism, however, was never so narrowly defined. The editor acknowledges that the paradigmatic dandies Charles Baudelaire and Constantin Guys “actually worked at a profession and cultivated only the appearance of dandiacal leisure” (1). Far from being unambiguously “upper-class,” “traditional,” or “mainstream,” dandyism was, from its origins, bourgeois: a challenge to the conventional privileges of the aristocracy and the mainstream morality of the petite bourgeoisie alike.

Fillin-Yeh must also acknowledge that the earliest theorists of dandyism recognized a transgressive gender dynamic within its identification with masculinity. Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1845 book Dandyism concluded, “For Dandies, as for women, to seem is to be.” Quoting this well-known phrase only in a note (25 n. 10), however, Fillin-Yeh omits Barbey’s immediately preceding analysis: “These Stoics of the boudoir drink their own blood under their mask and remain masked.”1 Among the myriad fascinating implications of this remark is that dandies are defined by performing masculinity (stoicism) as artifice (masked) in a way that is ultimately self-destructive. This has parallels with bourgeois femininity—as Barbey notes and Joan Riviere’s influential 1929 essay “Womanliness as Masquerade” analyzes—but it does not make dandyism synonymous with androgyny or drag, as Fillin-Yeh asserts in both her introduction and her essay, “Dandies, Marginality, and Modernism: Georgia O’Keeffe, Marcel Duchamp, and Other Cross-Dressers.” The barmaid in Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for instance, Fillin-Yeh calls the “female equivalent” of the dandy, despite the stress placed by her cited sources—T. J. Clark and Anne Hanson—on the barmaid’s gender and class difference from the men in the image. Such specificity is lost, however, as Fillin-Yeh generalizes about “this woman and other dandies” (132) and lumps “dandies and cross-dressers” (143) together as one category to support claims as vague as “Whether or not avant-garde artists in New York knew of the Baudelairian dandy’s connections with utopian socialism … [they] … were predisposed to a vision of artistic identity as being of the moment, and of modernity as heroic” and “The dandy’s persona was seen as a vehicle for breaking with convention: New York artists shared Baudelaire’s dandy’s ‘burning need to make of oneself something original’ ” (131). Linking dandyism loosely to such ubiquitous avant-garde tropes of novelty, heroism, and originality, Fillin-Yeh tautologically claims it as origin and symptom of canonic American modernism. Her claim that O’Keeffe and Florine Stettheimer were heroic dandies hangs completely on the conflation of cross-dressing—not even real drag, but androgynous 1920s fashion—with dandyism.

Painting with such a wide brush (and making exclusive and superficial use of secondary sources), Fillin-Yeh can sweep almost any essay under the rubric of dandyism, from ornamentation among Native Americans in the Northwest (59100) to cross-dressing among the Yoruba (20416). Some of her authors seem ill at ease with this nomenclature. Rhonda Garelick’s interview with Quentin Crisp is prefaced with the disclaimer that he is (until his death in 1999) the “living proof of dandyism’s historical specificity. Put simply, Crisp proves that we have long passed dandyism’s moment” (272). In this interview, Crisp limits dandyism to Regency England and rejects any identification with drag at all (274). Garelick’s own essay, “The Layered Look: Coco Chanel and Contagious Celebrity,” quickly redefines the dandy as the ancestor of the “modern media celebrity” (35) and moves on to that topic, somewhat overstating Chanel’s originality by asserting—on the authority of a recent Architectural Digest feature—that Chanel was the first to costume Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in modern dress. (Chanel’s costumes for the 1924 production Le Train Bleu, in fact, echoed the tennis whites worn by the dancers in the 1913 Jeux, costumed by Léon Bakst.)

Paradoxical as it may seem, the essays that adhere most closely to the historical literature on dandyism and display the strongest familiarity with conventional primary-source research are most successful in expanding the definition and application of the term in the ways promised by this anthology’s introduction. Joe Lucchesi’s “The Dandy in Me: Romaine Brooks’s 1923 Portraits” argues that dandyism’s association with men made its sartorial attributes an effective form of drag for a masculine-identified woman like Romaine Brooks. Starting from Brooks’s own observation that her “would-be admirers … like the dandy in me and are in no way interested in my inner-self or value” (153)—a remark strikingly reminiscent of Barbey’s—Lucchesi reads deeply into the artist’s biography, letters, and paintings to argue that “Brooks transfigured the male cultural connotations of the dandy in early-twentieth-century Paris and London to suggest a potential female homoerotic sexuality” (155). Citing Brooks’s artistic self-presentation in James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s style and her working friendship with Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, the model for Marcel Proust’s Baron de Charlus, Lucchesi creates a convincing context for a reinterpretation of Brooks’s androgynous portraits as something other than satires on her friends or documents of self-loathing. Rather than unmooring the concept of dandyism, Lucchesi’s careful grounding in visual and textual analysis, as well as in the cultural moment of (late) dandyism, allows him to fulfill the anthology’s promise of expanding dandyism’s rubric to include women.

Similarly, Jennifer Blessing’s “Claude Cahun, Dandy Provocateuse” begins with the problem of “anachronistic application” of theory (186) and carefully describes Cahun’s place in the milieu that produced Riviere’s theory of the masquerade as well as Cahun’s familarity with the writings of Oscar Wilde. This background gives real meaning to Cahun’s self-portraits costumed, like Brooks’s, specifically as a dandy—that is, not just wearing vaguely masculine attire, as in the portrait of O’Keeffe wearing what Fillin-Yeh rather dubiously asserts to be an “oversized man’s hat” (127). Blessing is the only author dealing with women who acknowledges the “deeply misogynistic” vein in “literary elaborations of the dandy,” carefully nuancing the expansion of dandyism within larger debates about this and other “identity positions,” among them “female,” “lesbian,” and “woman who dresses like a man” (196).

Other essays that effectively widen our understanding of the dandy include Richard J. Powell’s contribution “Sartor Africanus,” about the African American dandy from a self-proclaimed “popular Negro melody” from 1845 called “Dandy Jim from Carolina,” through a 1927 photograph in a black newspaper of the elaborately dressed Boisey Johnson of Georgia, in the words of the caption, “struttin’ his onions” on the Champs-Élysées, to recent fashions of basketball player Dennis Rodman and hip-hop entertainer Sean “Puffy” Combs. Nuancing his argument, Powell cautions that the “co-option of black male sartorial expressivity” by “fashion merchandizing giants” like Tommy Hilfiger suggests that “being a provocatively dressed black man now may not be as subversive as it once was” (23536). Another provocative essay, Mark Allen Svede’s “Twiggy and Trotsky: Or, What the Soviet Dandy Will Be Wearing This Next Five Year Plan” also emphasizes “sartorial self-construction,” this time in the context of “a modern totalitarian environment where a state-planned economy determined the color, cut, and catechism of virtually every available garment” (244). Comparing Regency England and Restoration France to the Soviet Union “during the period of destalinization and nominal democratization in the late 1950s and 1960s” (248), Svede combines a deep knowledge of recent East Bloc art and culture with a sophisticated use of the literature on dandyism—not to mention a highly readable prose—to trace the dandy’s reach beyond Western Europe.

This anthology’s most provocative expansion of the terms by which the dandy was historically constructed is Carter Ratcliff’s “Dandyism and Abstraction in a Universe Defined by Newton.” Drawing deeply on nineteenth-century sources, Ratcliff pronounces the dandy’s “knack for inconsequence” (104) his defining feature, tracing it in the facture of Manet’s painting, where “certain marks … insist on being understood as nothing more or less than marks of his brush” (105). By this definition, “passages that are representationally weak but make no strong argument for abstraction” in Analytical Cubism (108) and the “self-centered inertia in Mondrian’s non-objective paintings” (113) are part of the dandy’s legacy. “The twentieth-century art world’s only authentic dandy,” however, is Duchamp, not for dressing in drag but for steadfastly refusing to assign significance to his work. Ratcliff’s essay wanders with dandyish erudite pointlessness through the canon of modern art, dropping quips—“Ad Reinhardt disqualified himself by setting up shop as a nag” (116)—and dispensing epigraphs—“The dandyism of their art is a secret they keep from themselves” (118)—in an exhilarating display of the legacy he describes. His concluding claim that “the dandy’s blankness” offers our strongest challenge to the institutional logics of “efficiency, profit, or power” that shape conventional art history partakes of the bitterness Barbey discerned under the mask.

Christopher Reed
Lake Forest College

1 Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Dandyism, trans. Douglas Ainslie (1897; reprint, New York: PAJ Publications, 1988), 64.