In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Dandy

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Dandyism and the History of Fashion
  • Post-Victorian Contexts

Victorian Literature The Dandy
by
James Eli Adams
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0201

Introduction

The dandy is a central figure in 19th-century constructions of masculinity and social class, associated principally with men who devote fastidious attention to dress. That broad emphasis has posed challenges in defining the term, which persists into the present as a label for a wide range of responsiveness to fashion and a collective gaze. Although the dandy has forerunners in earlier figures of sartorial extravagance—the fop of Restoration drama, the “macaroni” of the late eighteenth century—and the term itself gains currency in the 1780s, the dandy emerges as a distinct type during the Regency, above all in the figure of George “Beau” Brummell (b. 1778–d. 1840). Brummell stands apart from earlier figures in associating male fashion with a form of paradoxically austere discipline, coupled with a cool social detachment that shades into disdain for those who fail to emulate his rigorous elegance. (Although Brummell and dandyism would exert a profound influence on French writers, this entry necessarily focuses on the English tradition.) This emphasis on outward appearance obviously unsettles traditional notions of masculinity, as it aligns the dandy with a conventionally feminine posture, which leads to a frequent association of the dandy with unorthodox sexuality. Early reception of the dandy also foregrounds perplexities surrounding social class. Was the figure a rearguard defense of a waning aristocratic order, a barbed parody of that milieu, a substantive attack on bourgeois society, or merely a parvenu’s fantasy? The dandy figures centrally in Victorian revisions of the gentleman, in which an older order of inherited privilege rather than achieved character is frequently repudiated as a mode of dandyism. Brummell’s fabled detachment also stimulated the construction of the dandy as an intellectual ideal, a standing critique of bourgeois society and thought. This is especially prominent in French appropriations of dandyism, from Barbey d’Aurevilly and Baudelaire through Camus. Other commentators, however, have stressed the sustained influence of dandyism as a material practice. This emphasis points to the dandy’s dependence on the social orders he might seem to resist, notably the rise of commodity culture. Scholarship on the dandy and dandyism frequently articulates this tension, and typically tends to emphasize one of the rival facets. After a survey of general studies of the dandy, this entry is organized around three historical sections, which mark distinct phases in the development of dandyism. The first runs from 1800 to 1840, the second from roughly 1840 to 1870, and the third from roughly 1870 through the end of the Victorian age. Each of these three sections is divided into a list of primary works, followed by scholarship addressing literary and social contexts (which may include biographies). The entry concludes with a section on dandyism in the history of fashion and a section on post-Victorian contexts.

General Studies

There is no comprehensive bibliography of the dandy in English. Montandon 2016 offers an extensive bibliography in French. The best point of departure for study is Moers 1978, which interweaves British and French traditions across the nineteenth century. Most studies tend to focus on one of those traditions, and on either the earlier or later decades. Stanton 1980 frames French dandyism in relation to a 17th-century model of masculinity. Amann 2015 offers a multinational history of the origins of the figure. Adams 1995 and Gilmour 1981 address the place of the dandy in Victorian constructions of the gentleman. Barbey D’Aurevilly 1897 and Baudelaire 1964 are two French constructions of the dandy that have been especially influential. Godfrey 1982 shows this influence in an analysis of the dandy as an incarnation of ironic perspective. Janes 2016 places the dandy within a history of visual typologies of the effeminate and homoerotic. Pine 1988 extends the history of British dandyism from Brummell to the 1930s.

  • Adams, James Eli. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501720437

    Treats the dandy as a central figure in tensions surrounding Victorian norms of masculinity, particularly as they inform constructions of intellectual labor. Throughout the period the dandy incarnates suspicions of intellectual labor as mere idleness, and yet the figure embodies modes of social presentation often difficult to disentangle from those of the gentleman—both of which are figures set against the more strenuously antisocial dynamics of the Victorian sage or prophet. The major figures are Carlyle, Tennyson, Thomas Arnold, Newman, Kingsley, and Pater.

  • Amann, Elizabeth. Dandyism in the Age of Revolution: The Art of the Cut. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    A markedly revisionary account, arguing that the dandy is grounded in revolutionary politics. The study locates the figure’s origins in 1790s France, focusing on the “politics of self-fashioning” in the related figures of the muscadins, jeunes gens, and incroyables, and then in the currutacos of Spain and the “crops” of 1790s England. A richly textured social and political history, but only in an epilogue does it draw connections with more familiar literary constructions of the dandy.

  • Barbey D’Aurevilly, Jules. Of Dandyism and of George Brummell. Translated by Douglas Ainslie. London: J. M. Dent, 1897.

    The single most influential French celebration of dandyism, prompted by the 1844 publication of Jesse’s Life. For Barbey, Brummell’s dandyism is above all an intellectual achievement, “a complete theory of life,” which at once respects and disrupts conventionalities. Brummell’s “empire” over his contemporaries is founded on this profoundly ironic stance, which gives the dandy “that sphinx-like air which interests as a mystery and troubles as a danger” (p. 55).

  • Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne. New York: Da Capo, 1964.

    In Baudelaire’s influential 1863 account (indebted to Barbey D’Aurevilly 1897), the dandy marks “a new kind of aristocracy,” formed in resistance to an emergent democracy. His authority is grounded in a personal originality cultivated through a discipline akin to “the strictest monastic rule”; that regimen allows the dandy to enjoy astonishing others while maintaining “an unshakable determination not be moved.” The dandy incarnates a spirit of “opposition and revolt,” an emphasis that was taken up a century later by Camus. See pp. 26–29.

  • Gilmour, Robin. The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel. London: Allen & Unwin, 1981.

    A valuable survey which stresses the importance of the dandy as a cultural touchstone, and more specifically as a foil in Victorian constructions of the gentleman, whose origins Gilmour locates in Addison’s Spectator essays. He is especially perceptive on Thackeray’s preoccupation with the figure, both in his early suspicion of the social mobility it evokes and in his reframings of the dandy in Vanity Fair.

  • Godfrey, Sima. “The Dandy as Ironic Figure.” SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism 11 (1982): 21–36.

    DOI: 10.2307/3684311

    Focusing on the French tradition, Godfrey examines the “oppositional” stance of the dandy as fundamentally ironic, in a broadly Kierkegaardian sense: the dandy “looks down as it were on plain and ordinary discourse as understood by everyone” (p. 24). Stressing the dandy’s ambivalent relation to the society that he at once depends on and presumes to stand above, the study finds the quintessence of “dandy-irony” in Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest.

  • Janes, Dominic. Oscar Wilde Prefigured: Queer Fashioning and British Caricature, 1750–1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226396552.001.0001

    A detailed, lavishly illustrated history of visual typologies of the effeminate and homoerotic in constructions of masculinity, with extensive accounts of the dandy across the nineteenth century. The study is particularly concerned to contest recent histories of sexuality in which the dandy figures as the prototype of a modern homosexual identity. Instead, Janes contends, the links between dandyism, aestheticism, and sodomy reach back into the eighteenth century.

  • Moers, Ellen. The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

    Still the most comprehensive history of the figure, and an essential reference point: a wide-ranging scholarly treatment in lively prose, accessible to a general audience. It is consistently perceptive and unrivaled in its scope, particularly in the interweaving of French and British contexts. First published 1960.

  • Montandon, Alain, ed. Dictionnaire du Dandysme. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2016.

    A valuable compendium, with extensive bibliographical references. Contains sections on dandyistic themes and motifs (“notions”), historical dandies, and literary characters. Focused on the French tradition, but contains entries on Beardsley, Beerbohm, Brummell, Byron, Disraeli, and Wilde.

  • Pine, Richard. The Dandy and the Herald: Manners, Mind and Morals from Brummell to Durrell. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-08053-3

    An idiosyncratic history, culminating in the literary circle attached to Lawrence Durrell, which focuses on a figure Pine calls “the heraldic dandy,” a social and artistic innovator “leading the vanguard,” as distinct from a more familiar mode of dandyism, “the imitator” (p. 53). Baudelaire is the great heraldic dandy of France, Wilde of England.

  • Stanton, Domna. The Aristocrat as Art: A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

    An important study, in a semiological mode derived from the example of Roland Barthes. Stanton helpfully compares constructions of identity and authority within two different models of aristocracy, one established, the other self-appointed. The latter encourages the dandy’s frequent association with varieties of conquest, which also explains the inculcation of ennui as an index of both exquisite sensibility and autonomy: to admit satisfaction is to suggest dependence on forces outside the self.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down