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See Christopher Reed’s review of Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture edited by Susan Fillin-Yeh.
In the following two letters, Susan Fillin-Yeh, editor of Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2001), and Robert E. Moore, a contributor to the volume, respond to Christopher Reed’s review of the book, published in caa.reviews June 18, 2002. Reed then responds to their letters.
I have recently read Christopher Reed’s review of Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture and wish to respond, for, as the book’s editor as well as a contributor, I had hoped for a reading that took note of Dandies’ contents. Instead, in criticizing the book for not being “consistently about dandies,” the reviewer so misses the point that he does not even recognize the book’s subject for what it is, an expanded definition of dandies—one that draws attention to unrecognized dandies and to a robust “outsider” paradigm of sartorial finesse, self-construction, androgyny, and cross-dressing apart from Western European male dandies. To compound this inattention, the reviewer betrays his ignorance not only of the contents of the book but also of central characteristics of the very subject matter in which he tries to claim expertise. A notable example is his misreading of “drag.” Reed criticizes my analysis of dandyism in Georgia O’Keeffe and Florine Stettheimer as not being examples of “real drag.” But, is not the purpose of “drag” its ambiguities—the disguise of one sex wearing clothing stereotypically assigned to the other? Perhaps Reed has not noticed how dandyism(s) is constructed. There is no absolute, no “real” aspect of it. “Real drag” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
There are other inaccuracies in the review. Reed has pulled sentences out of context in my essay on dandies, improperly classifying my discussion as generalized, although the chapter was specific to the New York avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s. He also apparently misunderstood citations from T. J. Clark’s and Anne Hanson’s studies of Édouard Manet’s barmaid at the Folies Bergère, which usefully illuminate a dandiacal mobility not limited to men (e.g., Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999], 253–54). He could not, it seems, have looked at the bibliographies in Dandies. Even a cursory perusal would indicate the presence of primary source material he says is absent. And why take me personally to task for placing excellent, well-known historical source materials on dandies in footnotes? The book’s purpose was not to requote previous scholarship, but rather to build on and move beyond it.(The citations Reed has taken from Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly’s 1845 book on dandies do not prove a point; they simply restate ideas that shaped an older definition.) These are but a few examples of a certain fretful attitude that is inappropriate and surprising in a scholarly review. The reviewer’s comments are inaccurate and unfounded. I can only hope that they do not detract readers from some good things he—correctly—had to say about some of the essays in the book.
—Susan Fillin-Yeh, Senior Fellow, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I feel I must respond to Christopher Reed’s review of Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture. It is probably only the rare review that so seriously mischaracterizes the content and aims of a book that a published correction would serve the interests of readers. Clearly, I believe that Reed’s review of Dandies is such a case.
The difficulties begin with the first sentence, where Reed writes that “The title of this anthology is misleading: The collection is not consistently about dandies, [and] only tangentially about fashion.” In fact, the collection is centrally, not tangentially, about fashion. Whether or not it is “consistently about dandies” depends of course on how narrowly one defines the word “dandy”—a complicated issue that I will address briefly below.
Who could read through the book’s table of contents and conclude that the collection is “only tangentially about fashion”? In addition to an introduction (of an exploratory and synthetic sort) and an epilogue (an interview with Quentin Crisp, conducted by Rhonda Garelick a few months before his death), the book contains nine topically focused essays: a study of Coco Chanel’s work in clothing and costume design in relation to emerging forms of celebrity (also by Garelick); my essay on nineteenth-century Native American men in the Pacific Northwest who created a new style of “formal” dress by incorporating elements of European “costume,” and military garb and other regalia; an astonishing essay by Carter Ratcliff on painterly abstraction and minimalism, impossible to summarize except as an instance of dandyism; an essay by the book’s editor, Susan Fillin-Yeh, on costume and cross-dressing in the artistic and bohemian demimonde inhabited by Marcel Duchamp, Florine Stettheimer, and others; a study by Joe Lucchesi of Romaine Brooks’s 1923 portraits of herself and her friends, suggesting that these pictures—long seen as icons of internalized self-loathing—may have appropriated the visual gestalt of (male) dandyism as a way of making a female form of homoeroticism visible within the heteronormative regime of the (art) world of the time; a study by Jennifer Blessing of Claude Cahun, who used photographic self-portraiture to capture her own sartorial and other self-transformations very far avant à la Cindy Sherman; a study of theatricalized crossdressing in a contemporary Yoruba form of public performance by Kimberly Miller; a study of the figure of the African American (male) dandy from the nineteenth century to the present by Richard J. Powell; and a study by Mark Svede of sartorial finesse in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period, “a land of bureaucratized fashion” where “the restricted scope of the permissible … may well have prolonged dandyism’s survival within the realm of fashion, such as it was” (249, 250).
Only tangentially about fashion? “Relentlessly” would seem more like it—but this begs another, more complicated question: Just what does and does not count as “dandyism.” In other words, how narrowly should we define the term?
Throughout the review, Reed seems to be of at least two minds on the subject, which are difficult to reconcile with each other. Reed criticizes the collection for “skimping on the historical specificity of dandyism,” even as he seems to endorse the project of “expanding the reach of this term.” He says that the essays that “are most successful in expanding the definition and application of the term” are those that “adhere most closely to the historical literature on dandyism and display the strongest familiarity with conventional primary-source research,” even as he praises others for their “provocative expansion of the terms by which the dandy was historically constructed….” Well, which is it? Isn’t the “dandy” still being historically constructed?
The editorial introduction by Fillin-Yeh is clear enough about the book’s ambition, which is precisely to explore what might be gained if we enlarge our inherited definition(s) of dandyism in certain ways, while retaining a focus on sartorial finesse and the sensuous materiality of clothing and accessories. The essays view dandyism though a wider cultural and historical lens that includes women, Africans and African Americans, Native Americans, people living under state socialism, and others who live and work outside the economic and sociosexual “mainstream” of the European metropole.
Reed subjects editor Fillin-Yeh to harsh criticism for paying inadequate attention to the fact that “dandyism was, from its origin, bourgeois,” and for insufficiently acknowledging that “the earliest theorists of dandyism recognized a transgressive gender dynamic within its identification with masculinity.” Reed finally accuses her of lumping dandies and cross-dressers together “as one category” and says she mistakes mere “androgynous 1920s fashion” for a mysterious something called “real drag.”
“Real drag”? Surely Reed is aware of the range of specialized meanings that the term “real” and its derived nominal “realness” have in the contemporary world of drag performance.
Reed complains that “the word ‘finesse’ disappears [from the book] after the title.” He neglects to mention the rest of the subtitle, “fashion and finesse in art and culture” [emphasis added], which seems to admit the possibility that we might seek exemplifications of the dandiacal beyond the realm of the European art world—a suggestion, as the book’s introduction points out, that Charles Baudelaire made first.
“Painting with such a wide brush,” Reed writes dismissively, “Fillin-Yeh can sweep almost any essay under the rubric of dandyism, from ornamentation among Native Americans in the Northwest to cross-dressing among the Yoruba.”
The real questions, it seems, are two: Is it possible to discuss dandyism in the absence of institutionalized “fashion”? Is it possible to discuss fashion in the absence of an economically significant fashion industry tied to capitalism? These questions cannot be settled in this response, but they are precisely the kinds of questions that Dandies seeks to explore. The different essays each limn a coherent and recognizably dandyistic set of self-consciously artistic achievements, all of which emerge from and depend upon sensibilities finely attuned to sartorial finesse, and how such things as clothing and accessories can be used to make powerful “statements” about sexual ambiguity and personal (and cultural, ethnic, racial) identity. Different essays focus on distinct aspects of this expanded sense of the dandiacal—its “performance” in context, its representation (e.g., in photography or painting), and its reception by the Others whose attention it demands.
And this is where an admittedly elastic term like “sartorial finesse”—and who would want to make “finesse” into a narrowly defined technical term?—comes in handy: it allows us to explore the possibility of thinking about the familiar nineteenth-century European male kind of dandyism together with what look like very similar kinds of sartorial achievements, even ones that manifest themselves in historical and cultural contexts where a “fashion industry” of a commercial capitalist sort (to say nothing of a male-dominated European art world) cannot be found.
The similarities, Reed seems to be saying, are all on the surface—which is right where we would expect them to be. “If dandyism stands for anything,” Mark Allen Svede reminds us in his contribution to the book, “it is surface” (244). Way deep down, to borrow a quip from Saul Bellow, it’s superficial.
If brevity is the soul of wit, I risk both wit and soul in the dynamics of this exchange. But, put as succinctly as possible, my review of Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture concluded that its several excellent essays were compromised when bundled with others of dubious relevance by an editor whose visual and verbal analyses of dandyism embraced both error and cliché at the expense of historical specificity. The best essays, I wrote, expanded the reach of the term “dandy”—beyond Western Europe, beyond men, beyond the fin-de-siècle—by carefully constructing scholarly cases for the influence of dandies and their values, rather than simply seizing upon sometimes misrecognized superficial affinities. The preceding may be two rather long sentences, but their logic is not so complex that Robert Moore and Susan Fillin-Yeh couldn’t grasp it if they’d a will to.
One might have hoped that, as an anthropologist, Moore would share my caution over confusing surface affinity with historical connection, for this was the language of the anthropological critique of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 “Primitivism” exhibition, in which (some) art historians snatched artifacts of “non-Western” peoples from their contexts to reinforce conventional narratives of modernist art. But Moore’s penchant for such casual allusions is demonstrated by (in addition to his essay on “dandies” among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest) his appropriation of the argot of the voguing culture of New York in the 1980s (which he glosses loosely as “the contemporary world of drag performance”) to willfully misunderstand my relatively simple point that Georgia O’Keeffe and Florine Stettheimer, in images discussed by the editor, are not wearing men’s clothes, but rather examples of androgynous 1920s fashion. If they are “real” in the language of the vogue balls documented in the film Paris is Burning, every model in “pajama pants” or “tailored suits” in issues of Vogue from the 1920s is Pepper Labeija (“legendary mother of the House of Labeija”).
Such casual misreadings of fashion history are what I intended by describing the book’s focus on fashion as tangential. My larger point is that the indiscriminate broadening of a category like “the dandy” flattens important cultural and historical distinctions and risks becoming a kind of “slumming” in which the frisson of the exotic is appropriated to enliven the conventional canon. Fashionable intellectual women are not the same as drag queens, now or in the 1920s. Though it may seem merely “fretful” to Fillen-Yeh to point that out, I suggest that she worry a bit over her stake in this act of appropriation.
Let me reiterate the original review’s observation that some of the contributors distanced themselves from the editor’s assumptions. I encourage readers interested by the annotated table of contents to Dandies that comprises most of Moore’s letter to consult what, as I said before, is in some ways a very interesting anthology. Readers of the book will also be able to judge for themselves the merits of Fillin-Yeh’s essays in relation to my earlier critique.
Having compromised so much of my own wit in responding at such length to these letters, I take recourse, for my quip in conclusion, to that exemplary dandy, Oscar Wilde, whose “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” reminds us of the discouraging phenomenon that, “If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.”
—Christopher Reed, Lake Forest College