The Dandy Life

The other night I read a passage that struck me as rather odd.

Batterberry’s book of A Social History of Fashion read; “In Roman times the dandy was frequently an object of legislation by those emperors who hoped to raise the swiftly sinking moral tone of their capital.”

In modern times “dandy” tends to be linked to homosexuality.

In Roman times homosexuality was part of society. I remember watching some film when I was in about year 8 and an Emperor was lounging in a bath asking his companions whether he enjoyed snails or oysters. The teacher paused the film here to explain to us innocents that he was asking whether he liked males or females.

Whole Greek armies were made up of men and their boy lovers with the idea that you would fight harder to protect the one you loved.

I really just wanted to put this picture in as it makes me laugh

(I really just wanted to include that picture because it makes me fall about laughing every time I see it)

But although relationships between men were the norm, Tiberius forbade men to wear silk, and under Aurelian, red yellow, green or white shoes were permitted only to women.

Dressing and self adornment was only the domain of women. Cicero had expressed his horror at Roman “dandies” wrapping themselves up in “sails, not in togas”

Seneca went further and cried “in tricking themselves out men go beyond women. They wear tart’s colours and do not walk, but strut and dance, more like players, butterflies, baboons, apes, antics, than men.”

Cicero was very firm though that “we ought to regard physical beauty as an attribute of women, and dignity as an attribute of men.”

We have men throughout history who adored dress. Napoleon had his beloved bootmaker, Louis XIV and his wig, Henry VIII wore skirts and a codpiece. A king could walk through the door with a coat over his shoulder and it would be fashionable the next day. The periwig, the vest, were all introduced by kings and dukes. Samuel Pepys spends a lot of time in his diaries musing about clothing. Governments throughout the ages have put much time and money into making sure the “common folk” are dressed well beneath them.

But nowadays there remains strange thoughts about men who think too much about dress. It tends to get confused and the word metrosexual had to suddenly be invented to give a separate definition of a man who dressed “gay” but liked “chicks”.

The “dandy” or the French “incroyable” in the 19th century was not really sexualised. Beau Brummell was the most famous of the dandies and simply loved dress. Tailoring. Society. The perfect fit. He had faultless personal hygiene and spotless linen. Never flash. Conspicuously inconspicuous. No ruffles or diamonds. Clean and elegant.

One tale tells of a man coming around to visit Beau and found him infront of the mirror with his butler tying his cravat around his neck. When he inquired to the pile of white fabric on the floor the butler said very seriously, “these are our failures!”

Beau called off his engagement to a girl after specifying that she ate too much cabbage and died alone in an asylum after fleeing from debtors to France and spending the time in between speaking to imaginary characters.

Was is Oscar Wilde who first linked “dandy” to “homosexual”?

Mark Simpson, an English journalist once referred to as the “skinhead Oscar Wilde” identified David Beckham as today’s metrosexual poster boy and offered this updated, succinct definition:
“The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis — because that’s where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.”

So, officially, there should be no connection between sexuality and dress. But there still was enough confusion about men dressing up to have need of the term “metrosexual.” It’s not even enough to simply say “oh, he just likes dressing up”.

What is it about our society’s makeup that has led to centuries of abhorrence of flamboyant men?

On BBC Radio 4 the other day a Turkish man was being interviewed about life and homosexuality in the Turkish Army. He was gay. He had had a boyfriend who was also in the army at the same time. But he never specified his sexuality and no one noticed. Living in such close quarters and away from females, most men were with other men. It wasn’t labelled homosexual. Apparently if you had many partners you were simply “adventurous”.

But this acceptance and normality was only between the soldiers. There were very harsh punishments if the command found you (although interestingly, there were very different levels of punishment depending in what position you were found in) and openly gay men were – and still are – simply not accepted.

Why do we have this wobbly line between what we accept and what we don’t?

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3 thoughts on “The Dandy Life

  1. Sebastian Horsley, one of the greats of our time.
    Have seen him read a few times, his book is well worth the tears.
    Great piece.

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