Katie Price and Dandyism in the 21st Century
In London in the early nineteenth century, fashionable society was ruled, not by Royalty, but by the son of a government clerk. For well over a decade – before he fled to France to escape gambling debts – George Brummell was a welcome guest at all the most exclusive parties and his opinion on matters of style was more highly regarded than even the Prince Regent’s. Yet Brummell was not a member of the aristocracy, nor was he particularly wealthy. He wasn’t a poet, a painter, a playwright or even a great wit. This isn’t to suggest Brummell was lacking in intelligence, just that his intellect did not manifest itself in obvious ways (“This man, too superficially judged, possessed such a powerful intellect, ” wrote Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly in his essay on Brummell, “that he reigned even more by his presence than by his words”).
His influence came, not from what he did – Brummell did very little – but from what he was. Brummell was a Dandy.
Brummell did not possess natural good looks: he was an artificial beauty. His attitude towards his body was unforgivingly strict. He washed rigorously, avoiding the need for perfume – this made him unique in a society in which people used scent to disguise poor hygiene. Not only this, but the tight cut of his clothes, as well as his high collars and stiff, starched cravats restricted his movement. It was almost impossible for Brummell to turn or lower his head. His stiff-neck contributed to his air of haughty superiority.
This sense of superiority – snobbery in fact – is a key part of the Dandiacal attitude. This attitude, epitomised by Brummell, also suggests a flippant, ironical stance towards society and conventional values (Brummell boasted that he liked to have the morning “well-aired” before he got out of bed). The Dandy also possesses a strongly held belief in individuality (“Alas! The rising tide of democracy, which spreads everywhere and reduces everything to the same level, is daily carrying away these last champions of human pride” cried Baudelaire.)
In the Age of Elegance, Brummell was the most elegant of them all. He represented a style of absolute perfection and refinement. He believed in subtlety and painstaking attention to detail – his gloves were said to have been made by two tailors, one made only the thumbs.
But what of our own age? Brummellian elegance is no longer sought after. People simply do not have time for subtlety and attention to detail any more (as Bryan Ferry said, “I don’t honestly think that anyone has the time these days to be really sincere about anything”). In today’s quick-fix high-speed broadband culture, what room is there for Dandyism? Where can we find our modern-day Dandies in a world of reality TV and Heat magazine? Well, what about a woman who’s spent the last decade dominating the tabloids? What about Jordan?
Changes in communication technology have greatly altered the speed with which people interact with one another as well as changing the nature of these interactions. We now need to be able to read people faster than ever. In a sense this can be compared to the effect the invention of the motor car had on the way we experience architecture. “The philosophical associations of the old eclecticism evoked subtle and complex meanings to be savoured in the docile spaces of a traditional landscape” wrote Robert Venturi in Learning From Las Vegas. “The commercial persuasion of roadside eclecticism provokes bold impact in the vast and complex setting of a new landscape of big spaces, high speeds and complex programs”. What Venturi calls for is a new form of symbolism – just as complex as the old symbolism, but easier to read. Explicit rather than implicit; “ugly and ordinary”, rather than “brave and heroic”. Venturi rejects Modernism’s secret symbolism: “unadmitted decoration by the articulation of integral elements”. Instead, Venturi celebrates “decoration by the attaching of superficial elements”.
“You know, having one boob job – fair enough, millions of women do” says Anna Pukas of the Daily Express. “Another one? Alright, maybe. But three? Jordan’s gone beyond self-enhancement – way, way beyond self-enhancement. She’s at the stage of self-mutilation now.” However, considering Jordan in Venturian terms, we can be a little kinder. Jordan has quite deliberately used her body as a billboard, raising her profile by the attachment of “superficial elements”. (Her elements are 32DD). Comments by such as Pukas’s, that Jordan has “mutilated” her body are quite common in the press – usually with a suggestion that her motivation is low self-esteem, or negative body image. However, such comments miss the point. “Three operations later and do you know how I feel? Great!” she says in her autobiography Being Jordan. “I don’t have a single regret about the breast surgery. It made me even more famous and brought me even more work. The silicone-enhanced Jordan has been in constant demand”. Like Brummell, Jordan is an artificial beauty.
Oscar Wilde boasted that he stood in a “symbolic relation to his Age”. The same could be said of Brummell – in the Age of Elegance, he was perfectly elegant. Equally, we could apply this description to Jordan. In an age of immediacy, Jordan is perfectly immediate.
Jordan has dominated the tabloid press for nearly a decade – almost as long as Brummell’s reign two centuries before. Her staying power suggests that there must be more to her than merely a pair of breasts – otherwise she would have been replaced by one of her rivals – newer, younger, bigger. Much of Jordan’s power comes from her ability to manipulate the press. The dandies, according to fashion historian Christopher Breward, used “the mechanisms of publicity in the form of the caricature and the newspaper gossip column” in order to promote their own celebrity. They “utilized the spaces of private dressing rooms, gentleman’s clubs, operas and theatres, ballrooms, parks, boxing rings, shopping streets and squares as pedestals for display and relied on the adulation (and rejection) of crowds, audiences and cliques as a means of lending authority to ‘the pose'”. Jordan follows in this Dandiacal tradition, albeit in a cruder form. Her notorious behaviour in London nightclubs, as well as her habit of flashing her pants as she climbs in or out of taxis guarantee her a constant stream of free publicity. Jordan deliberately cultivates an outrageous “bad girl” image. Like Brummell, she “displeases too generally not to be sought after”.
Many people are critical of the way Jordan seeks publicity, believing she is only interested in making money. However, this doesn’t seem quite fair. For someone so open about every detail of her life, Jordan rarely mentions her bank balance. “Money is indispensable to those who make an exclusive cult of their passions,” wrote Baudelaire. “But the Dandy does not aspire to wealth as an object in itself; an open bank credit could suit him just as well”. Dandies are not interested merely in being rich, but in the freedom money provides. The dandy’s ideal, says Baudelaire, is to have a “purse long enough for them to indulge without hesitation their slightest whim”, or as Jordan puts it, “I’m in the position now where I can pretty much have what I want.”
The title of Jordan’s biography, Being Jordan, is wonderfully Dandiacal. Pater, Wilde and, especially, Quentin Crisp all wrote about being. “The end of life is not action but contemplation – being as distinct from doing,” wrote Pater. Wilde said that civilised man should concern himself not with “doing, but being, and not being merely, but becoming”. This idea that man should be concerned, above all else, with “becoming” – with improvement, refinement – is especially Brummellian. Crisp, in How To Have A Lifestyle, described a hierarchy of professions: at the bottom are those jobs which “involve only things” – the making professions. Above that, the doing professions – those jobs which bring one “perpetually into contact with people”. However, the profession “to which all true stylists aspire” is “the Profession of Being”.
This is not to suggest, even for a second, that Ms Katie Price is aware of the Dandiacal significance of the title of her best-seller. Of course this is not true. But that fact just makes such a neat coincidence even more Dandy. No modern dandy would waste an afternoon in the Library slaving over a pile of dusty books. No, ignorance represents the correct intellectual position of the modern Dandy. At a time when every newspaper headline warns of the dangers of terrorism – when the very fabric of western civilisation is under threat – being ignorant is a decadent act. To ignore the alarmist headlines, and to concentrate instead on the latest gossip from the 3AM girls, is to display what George Walden describes as a “nihilistic playfulness” – the essence of Dandyism.
The notion of “the Profession of Being” was crucial to Crisp’s philosophy. A key part of this philosophy was the idea that there was a distinction between one’s “identity” and one’s “lifestyle”. “Our identity is just a group of ill-assorted characteristics that we happened to be born with” said Crisp. “You have to polish up your raw identity into a lifestyle so that you can barter with the outside world for what you want.”
This act of “polishing” involves recognising what Crisp described as “the trouble with you”. “If, when you peer into your soul, you find that you are ordinary, then ordinary is what you must remain,” wrote Crisp. “But you must be so ordinary that you can imagine someone saying ‘Come to my party and bring your humdrum friend’ and everyone knowing he meant you”. In this, he echoes Andy Warhol, who a decade earlier had stressed the idea that one should emphasise one’s flaws, so as not to get caught out at a later date. “When you’re interested in somebody, and you think they might be interested in you,” explains Warhol. “You should point out all your beauty problems and defects right away, rather than take a chance they won’t notice them. At least you know it will never become an issue later on in the relationship, and if it does, you can always say ‘Well I told you that in the beginning.'” “That which cannot be wholly concealed should be deliberately displayed” insists Crisp.
Jordan has made a career out of displaying “that which cannot be wholly concealed”. It is tempting to characterise Jordan as nothing more than a pair of breasts, but in a sense, not only is she only that; but she is deliberately only that. “Yes, I’m famous for my boobs – so what?” she asks.
“What’s clever about going out into the street, or walking out of a club and pulling your T-shirt down?” asks Anna Pukas. “Any nit-wit can do that!” she insists. But the most basic rule of economics – the law of supply and demand – implies the opposite. Indeed, this is why we should ignore all those reactionaries who dismiss any potentially lucrative professions – modelling, pop music, modern art – as easy. If it really was that simple: if anyone could do it, then everyone would do it. Strictly speaking, we all could sew the names of our lovers onto a tent – it takes no special talent. But none of us can be bothered – and even if we could, none of us did it before Tracy Emin. As much as we may wish to criticise Dandies for their lack of real talent; you can’t argue with success. “The measure of a person’s lifestyle,” says Crisp, “is the distance between the talent and the fame”.
However, it is unfair to suggest that Jordan does not possess talent – although it is an understandable mistake. Jordan’s talent is invisible. Concealed behind extensive cosmetic surgery, her genius lies in her automatic, accidental understanding of what it takes to become a Professional Being. Jordan is not an intellectual Dandy; she has never read Baudelaire, Barbey or Beerbohm – and yet she doesn’t need to. Her instinctive grasp of the principles of Dandyism has enabled her to reach the top of her profession and to maintain her position for almost a decade. Jordan’s detractors may try to suggest that she is stupid, but this is an unimaginative critique of Dandyism. “What do you say to people who say that you’re stupid?” Piers Morgan asks Jordan at the end of his documentary about the media star. “I’m stupid enough to still be in this business after nine years and to have got everything I have, all my houses and everything, so I’ll carry on being stupid for a few more years and see what else I can get.” Two hundred years ago, Brummell was asked a similar question, and gave a remarkably similar answer: “If the world is so silly as to admire my absurdities, you and I may know better, but what does it signify?” Both Jordan and Brummell are fully aware of the absurdity of their professions and revel in it.
You may hate Jordan for her vulgarity, or her crude, cold unerotic commodified sexuality. You may hate her for her greed, or her hunger for fame. But the Dandy is nothing more than a mirror reflecting the society in which they live. To hate Jordan is to hate the society that created her. To hate Jordan is to hate yourself.