Review – I Am Dandy : The Return of the Elegant Gentleman, by Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan
Your tie’s straight, your shoes are buffed and you’re feeling suave. That’s dandy. I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman is a series of portraits by New York based photographer Rose Callahan, which are bolstered by interview-based profiles written by Nathaniel Adams, academic and New York correspondent for The Chap.
The dandy – described by Baudelaire in The Painter Of Modern Life as, “the wealthy man, who, blasé though he may be, has no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness, the man nurtured in luxury, and habituated from early youth to being obeyed by others, the man, finally, who has no profession other than elegance…” is experiencing a revival, and it isn’t just limited to the bright lights of London and New York, which typically inspire such extravagant posturing. I Am Dandy : The Return of the Elegant Gentleman sets its sights wider than those conspicuous metropolises, and delves into territories less known.
This exploration of the world of today’s dandies proves that there is no catch-all definition of a dandy. Some of the men featured are committed to living a life of exquisite leisure, while others are resolutely committed to their careers, and often link their attention to detail in dressing to their success, and the way that they are perceived within their profession. There is also a wonderful ethnic mix of subjects, from Guatemalan, to Korean, spanning African-Americans, Ghanaian-English, Italian aristocracy and more en route. It’s a refreshing mixture – and one that reminds you that that most famous dandy, Oscar Wilde, was a perennial outsider, an Irishman in London, with a radical mother and a philandering father. While I’m sure the latter details don’t apply to every subject, there’s a pervading sense of the outsider throughout the book, from the Bronx-boy turned superstar lawyer, to the Georgia-native turned Caftan aficionado.
Some of the original dandies adopted their flamboyant personas as a protest against the egalitarianism of the late 1800s. Ironically, some of the dandies in this book have used their sartorial elegance to buck typical notions of class and dress. For others, the dandy aesthetic is a totem of the power of dress in influencing social mobility. The idea that dressing well can reflect positively in universally known – (why else do people wear suits to interviews?) and this book explores the notion of being emancipated from the class in which you were born by sartorial means. A class war fought in class shoes. Brothers Dr Andre and Dr Keith Churchwell were inspired by their father, who daringly started a black newspaper in highly segregated Nashville. Andre Churchwell says, “Every morning my father put on his armor – white shirt, tie, sack suit.” It’s clear Churchwell Senior’s suit was a form of protection. Look like a gentleman, act like a gentleman, and you’ll be treated with respect, regardless of the colour of your skin. As doctors, his sons would never approach a patient in scrubs outside the O.R, as a sign of mutual respect.
Intellectual dandyism is acknowledged within I Am Dandy, mainly with pithy quotes from some of the great philosophers. However, what the content really reveals, is that you can’t define the modern dandy. A dandy is the product of so many social factors, and so vastly removed from the world of the original dandy, that they come in a wide variety of forms. Many are led by example – for instance the legacy of Sebastian Horsley casts a dark shadow over how some live their lives. His profession, that of a writer and artist, is the preferred of many of the more traditional dandies in this book, for writing and drawing are not considered work, but have an enjoyable aspect that mean that monetary gain doesn’t have to come at the expense of their own enjoyment. In some cases, the pursuit of leisure is really rather sad, and one featured dandy, Mr Dickon Edwards, who leads a nomadic life in abject poverty. His portrait stands out as being particularly grim, in an almost-institutional flat, sparse but for a slightly creepy portrait of him in his younger days. It makes you wonder, is the dedication to a life of idleness really worth it? In the forward, Glenn O’Brien points out that, “Wealth no longer looks admirable to the dandy. At best, it still seems to border on sleaziness. Ambition is fine when it comes to power or wreaking havoc on your enemies, but when it comes to amassing wealth for the purpose of idleness, it doesn’t really hold up today. Today’s descendants of the founding dandies should be workers, and distance themselves from the idle rich and the practitioners of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste.” So, not every modern dandy is a louche, posing on a chaise lounges with a slim cigarette permanently perched between his lips, and this book is an apt reminder of that. The idle rich are fast dwindling in numbers, and in their stead, there are people working in fields aligned to their passions, for instance, shopkeepers and barbers, and also those who work in purely professional fields as doctors and lawyers.
Where I Am Dandy might disappoint is in the inclusion of the particularly caricatured co-founder of The Chap, Gustav Temple (The Chap is a pet hate of mine). Let’s put it this way, this man’s manifesto includes “…instead of the dry old formula of a plate flanked by serried ranks of knives, forks and spoons, today’s modern host should show a little more ingenuity when selecting eating utensils. The novelty of using a Black & Decker two-speed drill to sheer flakes of the roast beef or a 15-inch spanner to negotiate the foie gras, will firmly place your party in the minds of your guests as a night to remember.” For Temple, his attention to period dress is a weapon with which to fight the battle against the decline in manners and decorum. This is a bit too close to the reason that the military make its men spend hours shining their shoes, but whatever gets people adhering to your ideology, I suppose. And he does have a bit of the Dad’s Army Private Walker about him, so maybe all can be forgiven. Also, dandyism can’t avoid being cartoonish in our world, where people socialise in shell-suits and wear Nikes to the nightclub, right?
I Am Dandy is an exceptional resource to anyone who enjoys the pursuit of elegance and revels in beauty. It is for people who admire beautiful things – new or old – and appreciate elegance in the simplest of pleasures, from knick-knacks to a good gin. This book isn’t about money, or lavishly spending on gauche items. It is about provenance, history, lifestyle and personality. The photography is evocative, and reveals small details about the dandies’ lives, from the books they read to the illustrations they sketch, and even their preferred marmalade. It is a book you will reference and revisit time and time again, but don’t notate with post-its, unless they’re the precise shade of fuchsia as lines the book. After all, as Nathaniel Adams writes, isn’t there “something of the obsessive-compulsive” about all of this?!
Review by Kate Coleman // @colemakf