Thoughts On Being a Dandy

Living tastefully, cultivating an aesthetic mode of being, artfully fashioning the self, being deeply concerned with superficiality: all these things are characteristic of what is referred to as “Dandyism.” Oscar Wilde comes to mind as the epitome of a dandy. I would argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald and many of his fictional characters are also dandies. Think white men who are independently wealthy, sophisticated, tall, have a natural wit and don’t look gross when smoking.

“These beings have no other status but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking,” writes Baudelaire.

Such a status is stereotypically reserved for men of leisure, because the vulgar and the common simply do not have the privilege to sit around and cultivate discriminating taste, or cross their slender legs and drink whiskey on the rocks enraptured by some beautiful feeling or feeling of beauty. The common are busy muddying themselves, running around looking for the use of things, neglecting the pleasing and seemingly unnecessary details of themselves and their environments. This is in contrast to how Baudelaire conceives of the dandy, anyway. The image he paints is restrictive, to say the least, but I’ll refrain from making ethical criticisms of it here as it would be in bad taste given the topic being discussed. Still, I think Dandyism can be expanded to include an array of individual types that in some indefinable shape or form have an inherent sense of taste and ascribe to living aesthetically. Do not make the mistake of thinking that aesthetic living is merely about “dressing up” or “looking cool,” though: it’s a persona.

Though it cannot really be taught, taste is known when it is seen, and it is not particular to the male and the white and the wealthy. I can think of a pink-haired, waify street punk I know who I would unhesitatingly call a dandy: there is taste, there is wit, there is self-composure and slender angularity. I can also think of a relative of mine who lives a sheltered domestic life yet oozes beauty and grace from every aspect of her behavior, even while making bean stew for her husband. And she has a cat as a pet (would never dream of having a dog!), a sure sign of Dandyism. The point is that the aesthetic persona can appear in a diversity of contexts, rare and unteachable though it is. And I find it admirable to a degree, because it is in some ways a talent to have a sense of taste and to exercise this in one’s actions, and mainly because its manifestation is not only found among the rich and bored.

One of Baudelaire’s assertions I do agree with, however, and that is that Dandyism in certain respects comes close to Stoicism. As he puts it: “The specific beauty of the dandy consists particularly in that cold exterior resulting from the unshakable determination to remain unmoved; one is reminded of a latent fire, whose existence is merely suspected, and which, if it wanted to, but it does not, could burst forth in all its brightness.”

That’s the dandy. I realize that I didn’t make a strong argument for why people other than Wildes or Fitzgeralds can be dandies, but consider this: if Epictetus the slave could be a Stoic on the same ranks as the prince Marcus Aurelius, then pink-haired street punk can be a dandy on the same ranks as Adrian Brody.

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