Dandies by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Perhaps there is no individual of all our race who is quite insensible to the pleasures of what children call “dressing-up.” Even the cynic, the man who defiantly wears old and queer clothes, is merely suffering from a perversion of that animal instinct which causes the peacock to swagger in the sun and flaunt the splendour of his train, the instinct that makes the tiger-moth show the magnificence of his damask wing, and also makes the lion erect the horrors of his cloudy mane and paw proudly before his tawny mate. We are all alike in essentials, and Diogenes with his dirty clouts was only a perverted brother of Prince Florizel with his peach-coloured coat and snowy ruffles. I intend to handle the subject of dandies and their nature from a deeply philosophic starting-point, for, like Carlyle, I recognize the vast significance of the questions involved in the philosophy of clothes. Let no flippant individual venture on a jeer, for I am in dead earnest. A mocking critic may point to the Bond Street lounger and ask, “What are the net use and purport of that being’s existence? Look at his suffering frame! His linen stock almost decapitates him, his boots appear to hail from the chambers of the Inquisition, every garment tends to confine his muscles and dwarf his bodily powers; yet he chooses to smile in his torments and pretends to luxuriate in life. Again, what are the net use and purport of his existence?” I can only deprecate our critic’s wrath by going gravely to first principles. O savage and critical one, that suffering youth of Bond Street is but exhibiting in flaunting action a law that has influenced the breed of men since our forefathers dwelt in caves or trees! Observe the conduct of the innocent and primitive beings who dwell in sunny archipelagos far away to the South; they suffer in the cause of fashion as the youth of the city promenade suffers. The chief longing of the judicious savage is to shave, but the paucity of metals and sharp instruments prevents him from indulging his longing very frequently. When the joyous chance does come, the son of the forest promptly rises to the occasion. No elderly gentleman whose feet are studded with corns could bear the agony of patent leather boots in a heated ballroom with grander stoicism than that exhibited by our savage when he compasses the means of indulging in a thorough uncompromising shave. The elderly man of the ballroom sees the rosy-fingered dawn touching the sky into golden fretwork; he thinks of his cool white bed, and then, by contrast, he thinks of his hot throbbing feet. Shooting fires dart through his unhappy extremities, yet he smiles on and bears his pain for his daughters’ sake. But the elderly hero cannot be compared with the ambitious exquisite of the Southern Seas, and we shall prove this hypothesis. The careless voyager throws a beer-bottle overboard, and that bottle drifts to the glad shore of a glittering isle; the overjoyed savage bounds on the prize, and proceeds to announce his good fortune to his bosom friend. Then the pleased cronies decide that they will have a good, wholesome, thorough shave, and they will turn all rivals green with unavailing envy. Solemnly those children of nature go to a quiet place, and savage number one lies down while his friend sits on his head; then with a shred of the broken bottle the operator proceeds to rasp away. It is a great and grave function, and no savage worthy the name of warrior would fulfil it in a slovenly way. When the last scrape is given, and the stubbly irregular crop of bristles stands up from a field of gore, then the operating brave lies down, and his scarified friend sits on his head. These sweet and satisfying idyllic scenes are enacted whenever a bottle comes ashore, and the broken pieces of the receptacles that lately held foaming Bass or glistening Hochheimer are used until their edge gives way, to the great contentment of true untutored dandies. The Bond Street man is at one end of the scale, the uncompromising heathen barber at the other; but the same principles actuate both.

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The Maori is even more courageous in his attempts to secure a true decorative exterior, for he carves the surface of his manly frame into deep meandering channels until he resembles a walking advertisement of crochet-patterns for ladies. Dire is his suffering, long is the time of healing; but, when he can appear among his friends with a staring blue serpent coiled round his body from the neck to the ankle, when the rude figure of the bounding wallaby ornaments his noble chest, he feels that all his pain was worth enduring and that life is indeed worth living. The primitive dandy of Central Africa submits himself to the magician of the tribe, and has his front teeth knocked out with joy; the Ashantee or the Masai has his teeth filed to sharp points–and each painful process enables the victim to pose as a leader of fashion in the tribe. As the race rises higher, the refinements of dandyism become more and more complex, but the ruling motive remains the same, and the Macaroni, the Corinthian, the Incroyable, the swell, the dude–nay, even the common toff–are all mysteriously stirred by the same instinct which prompts the festive Papuan to bore holes in his innocent nose. Who then shall sneer at the dandy? Does he not fulfil a law of our nature? Let us rather regard him with toleration, or even with some slight modicum of reverence. Solemn historians affect to smile at the gaudy knights of the second Richard’s Court, who wore the points of their shoes tied round their waists; they even ridicule the tight, choking, padded coats worn by George IV., that pattern father of his people; but I see in the stumbling courtier and the half-asphyxiated wearer of the padded Petersham coat two beings who act under the demands of inexorable law.

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Our great modern sage brooded in loneliness for some six years over the moving problem of dandyism, and we have the results of his meditations in “Sartor Resartus.” We have an uneasy sense that he may be making fun of us–in fact, we are almost sure that he is; for, if you look at his summary of the doctrines put forth in “Pelham,” you can hardly fail to detect a kind of sub-acid sneer. Instead of being impressed by the dainty musings of the learned Bulwer, that grim vulturine sage chose to curl his fierce lips and turn the whole thing to a laughing-stock. We must at once get to that summary of what the great Thomas calls “Dandiacal doctrine,” and then just thinkers may draw their own conclusions.

Articles of Faith.–1. Coats should have nothing of the triangle about them; at the same time wrinkles behind should be carefully avoided. 2. The collar is a very important point; it should be low behind, and slightly rolled. 3. No license of fashion can allow a man of delicate taste to adopt the posterial luxuriance of a Hottentot. 4. There is safety in a swallowtail. 5. The good sense of a gentleman is nowhere more finely developed than in his rings. 6. It is permitted to mankind, under certain restrictions, to wear white waistcoats. 7. The trousers must be exceedingly tight across the hips.

Then the sage observes, “All which propositions I for the present content myself with modestly, but peremptorily and irrevocably, denying.” Wicked Scotchman, rugged chip of the Hartz rock, your seven articles of the Whole Duty of the Dandy are evidently solemn fooling! You despised Lytton in your heart, and you thought that because you wore a ragged duffel coat in gay Hyde Park you had a right to despise the human ephemera who appeared in inspiriting splendour. I have often laughed at your solemn enumeration of childish maxims, but I am not quite sure that you were altogether right in sneering.

So far for the heroic vein. The Clothes Philosopher whose huge burst of literary horse-laughter was levelled at the dandy does not always confine himself to indirect scoffing; here is a plain statement–“First, touching dandies, let us consider with some scientific strictness what a dandy specially is. A dandy is a clothes-wearing man, a man whose trade office, and existence consist in the wearing of clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to this one object–the wearing of clothes wisely and well; so that, as others dress to live, he lives to dress. The all-importance of clothes has sprung upon the intellect of the dandy without effort, like an instinct of genius; he is inspired with cloth–a poet of cloth. Like a generous creative enthusiast, he fearlessly makes his idea an action–shows himself in peculiar guise to mankind, walks forth a witness and living martyr to the eternal worth of clothes. We called him a poet; is not his body the (stuffed) parchment-skin whereon he writes, with cunning Huddersfield dyes, a sonnet to his mistress’s eyebrow?”

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This is very witty and very trenchant in allusion, but I am obliged to say seriously that Carlyle by no means reached the root of the matter. The mere tailor’s dummy is deplorable, despicable, detestable, but a real man is none the worse if he gives way to the imperious human desire for adornment, and some of the men who have made permanent marks on the world’s face have been of the tribe whom our Scotchman satirised. I have known sensible young men turned into perfectly objectionable slovens by reading Carlyle; they thought they rendered a tribute to their master’s genius by making themselves look disreputable, and they found allies to applaud them. One youth of a poetic turn saw that the sage let his hair fall over his forehead in a tangled mass. Now this young man had very nice wavy hair, which naturally fell back in a sweep, but he devoted himself with an industry worthy of a much better cause to the task of making his hair fall in unkempt style over his brow. When he succeeded, he looked partly like a Shetland pony, partly like a street-arab; but his own impression was that his wild and ferocious appearance acted as a living rebuke to young men of weaker natures. If I had to express a blunt opinion, I should say he was a dreadful simpleton. Every man likes to be attractive in some way in the springtime and hey-day of life; when the blood flushes the veins gaily and the brain is sensitive to joy, then a man glories in looking well. Why blame him? The young officer likes to show himself with his troop in gay trappings; the athlete likes to wear garments that set off his frame to advantage; and it is good that this desire for distinction exists, else we should have but a grey and sorry world to live in. When the pulses beat quietly and life moves on the downward slope, a man relies on more sober attractions, and he ceases to care for that physical adornment which every young and healthy living creature on earth appreciates. So long as our young men are genuinely manly, good, strong, and courageous, I am not inclined to find fault with them, even if they happen to trip and fall into slight extravagances in the matter of costume. The creature who lives to dress I abhor, the sane and sound man who fulfils his life-duties gallantly and who is not above pleasing himself and others by means of reasonable adornments I like and even respect warmly. The philosophers may growl as they chose, but I contend that the sight of a superb young Englishman with his clean clear face, his springy limbs, his faultless habiliments is about as pleasant as anything can be to a discerning man. Moreover, it is by no means true that the dandy is necessarily incompetent when he comes to engage in the severe work of life. Our hero, our Nelson, kept his nautical dandyism until he was middle-aged. Who ever accused him of incompetence? Think of his going at Trafalgar into that pouring Inferno of lead and iron with all his decorations blazing on him! “In honour I won them and in honour I will wear them,” said this unconscionable dandy; and he did wear them until he had broken our terrible enemy’s power, saved London from sack, and worse, and yielded up his gallant soul to his Maker. Rather an impressive kind of dandy was that wizened little animal. “There’ll be wigs on the green, boys–the dandies are coming!” So Marlborough’s soldiers used to cry when the regiment of exquisites charged. At home the fierce Englishmen strutted around in their merry haunts and showed off their brave finery as though their one task in life were to wear gaudy garments gracefully; but, when the trumpet rang for the charge, the silken dandies showed that they had the stuff of men in them. The philosopher is a trifle too apt to say, “Anybody who does not choose to do as I like is, on the face of it, an inferior member of the human race.” I utterly refuse to have any such doctrine thrust down my throat. No sage would venture to declare that the handsome, gorgeous John Churchill was a fool or a failure. He beat England’s enemies, he made no blunder in his life, and he survived the most vile calumnies that ever assailed a struggling man; yet, if he was not a dandy, then I never saw or heard of one. All our fine fellows who stray with the British flag over the whole earth belong more or less distinctly to the dandy division. The velvet glove conceals the iron hand; the pleasing modulated voice can rise at short notice to tones of command; the apparent languor will on occasion start with electric suddenness into martial vigour. The lounging dandies who were in India when the red storm of the Mutiny burst from a clear sky suddenly became heroes who toiled, fought, lavished their strength and their blood, performed glorious prodigies of unselfish action, and snatched an empire from the fires of ruin.

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Even if a young fellow cannot afford fine clothes, he can be neat, and I always welcome the slightest sign of fastidiousness, because it indicates self-respect. The awful beings who wear felt hats swung on one side, glaring ties, obtrusive checks, and carry vulgar little sticks, are so abhorrent that I should journey a dozen miles to escape meeting one of them. The cheap, nasty, gaudy garments are an index to a vast vulgarity of mind and soul; the cheap “swell” is a sham, and, as a sham, he is immoral and repulsive. But the modest youth need not copy the wild unrestraint of the gentleman known as “‘Arry”; he can contrive to make himself attractive without sullying his appearance by a trace of cheap and nasty adornment, and every attempt which he makes to look seemly and pleasing tends subtly to raise his own character. Once or twice I have said that you cannot really love any one wholly unless you can sometimes laugh at him. Now I cannot laugh at the invertebrate haunter of flashy bars and theatre-stalls, because he has not the lovable element in him which invites kindly laughter; but I do smile–not unadmiringly–at our dandy, and forgive him his little eccentricities because I know that what the Americans term the “hard pan” of his nature is sound. It is all very well for unhandsome philosophers in duffel to snarl at our butterfly youth. The dry dull person who devours blue-books and figures may mock at their fribbles; but persons who are tolerant take large and gentle views, and they indulge the dandy, and let him strut for his day unmolested, until the pressing hints given by the years cause him to modify his splendours and sink into unassuming sobriety of demeanour and raiment.

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June, 1888.

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