An Open and Frank Letter to Gustav Temple

The chaps at The Chap magazine do for dandies exactly what Fathers 4 Justice do for patriarchs: they embarrass us. Their recent Children In Tweed exploit, in which they handed out a higher class of clothing to the ‘deprived’ youth of a council estate, and its dismal failure highlighted an obvious truth about dandyism, one of which the chaps seem blissfully unaware. Dandies, like the English (as Mr Engels was kind enough to point out), do not have the stuff within them to revolt.

For the role of the dandy is that of diplomat rather than missionary. Much as the Chinese ambassador to Britain does not want the country’s inhabitants to apply for Chinese passports, the dandy does not wish to see his mirror image in others. In fact, such a mirroring would distress him the most.

The ambassadorial prerogative is to strengthen relations while acknowledging cultural differences. To enter a council estate and force the natives into one’s national dress is not the way to go about this. Distributing free copies of Mr Crisp’s How To Have A Lifestyle would perhaps be a better method, if it didn’t seem so impolite and redolent of the foot soldiers of the lord.

However, one or two misguided hijinx are not a problem in themselves, rather they are symptomatic of the chaps’ misreading of dandiacal practice; a misreading through which they are likely to become like their enemy, rather than smiting them. The mistake, of course, being that of having an enemy at all, or at least a corporeal one. The sportsgear-wearing citizens of these tower blocks should not be seen as enemy or victim by the dandy, for he knows that human kind as a whole has but one foe, the bitch-hound that Baudelaire declared “uglier and more wicked and filthier than the rest”: boredom.

The chaps set themselves up as ‘anarcho-dandyists,’ but they are not so much anarchic as anachronistic. They hark for a bygone age or collection of ages that they see as epitomising ideals of refinement and civility. All that is fine and well. They may even be correct – I am too young to remember the forties with acuity – but it may well be that times past showed greater courtesy and style than the vulgarities of the now. It would not be hard. However, the chaps do not seek to combat these vulgarities by bringing forward the enlightened ideals that made those periods so enjoyable for our ancestors. They plan on fighting through the use of gramophones and cut-throat razor shaving kits and the condemnation of mobile phones and the internet. If anything, they are anti-progress, which is, itself, anti-refinement. For the cd-player is the gramophone refined and made sleeker, as the mobile phone is a step-up from a Morse code machine. Progress is refinement and vice is versa.

That is not to suggest that all technological advancements are advantageous or beneficial, but to refuse all with blanket stoicism is both pompous and self-defeating. It also contravenes what I suggest it means it be a dandy.

Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy pointed out during an interview that, if Mr Wilde were alive today, he most certainly wouldn’t be seen wearing a suit. I fear this means that, while it is acceptable to suggest that there was a golden age of dandyism, it is folly to merely transpose the trappings of that age on the present. If such periods happened to be better off, it is due to the philosophy of dandyism, rather than the superficial gildings (is it any wonder that dandies are condemned for shallowness?).

The dandiacal principal is an unclear thing, but at its heart is the theme of self-invention and the creation of one’s own character. It is unjustifiable for the chaps to claim themselves ‘dandyists’ and yet still attempt to push tweeds on council estaters like they were narcotics (the first is always free).

Yet, that they try to enforce their vision of style on others is not the worst of it. It is natural for the dandy to borrow tricks from generations of dandies previous, but it is always in the pursuit of defining himself and setting himself apart, not only from those surrounding him, but, more importantly, from other dandies. That the chaps choose to take their mien wholesale from a certain set of agreed markers means that they are no different to those who live their lives as directed by Heat magazine and television commercials.

The chaps seek to make themselves a noticeable sub-group of which one is or is not a member. They promote exclusivity by denying the wearers of sports-clothes and jeans (each equally dreadful apparel) entry to their club. However, if one takes the principal of self-invention to its natural conclusion, it promotes inclusive individuality, not exclusivity. If each man/woman/child is solely responsible for their own identity, there are no groups from which one can exclude others or to which one can be included. The idea of a dandiacal organisation is unrealisable, because a dandy will only follow those aesthetic or ideological rules that are of his own making.

To denounce outright that sportswear which is worn off the sports field is to approach the trouble from the wrong tack. For one thing, it is clear that the track tops and bottoms we are discussing would restrict one’s movement considerably during a game of sport, so could only conceivably be worn outside that arena. And for a second thing, any aesthete worth their salt knows that a dashing set of cricket whites can look equally swell on the field of play or a picnicking blanket. The problem with such clothing is that it lacks substantially in the visual department. The solution is to lead by example; show what a swarthy figure you cut as you cross the promenade, don’t faff about with placards bearing tired slogans… Aesthetics not athletics… etc.

Such a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a dandy lends some understanding to the other difficulties within the chap manifesto.

Firstly, one must question how we can usher in a new age of civility through the chaps’ proposed revolutionary actions:

Enter the purveyors of ‘fast food’ and request a table for two with “a pleasant view,” then order a breakfast of devilled kidneys, kedgeree and eggs Benedict.
In the premises of Mr Nike, ask to be measured for a suit by the head cutter.

Surely to utter these anachronistic terms and out-moded niceties outside their original context is the height of rudeness. One seems to be going out of one’s way to inflict aural illiteracy on the hearer, as if it were the fault of the teen behind the counter that Mr McDonald sells only processed gruels or that the young girl in the sports shoe store was responsible for the lack of tailor-in-residence. If one is opposed to such institutions (and I agree that one should be), one must inspire others to consume elsewhere, not throw smug non-sequesters at helpless clerks. The neat cut of your own bespoked suit should be enough to reduce the sales in any of Mr Nike’s emporiums.

It also goes without saying that tipping one’s hat to ‘the ladies,’ as the manifesto directs, not only puts those of us who do not suit hats in the position of appearing impolite, but is plainly sexist. The chaps desire to return to a war-time age of civility is also a desire to return to a pre-feminist age. It is impossible to resolve their form of refinement (the refinement of sleaze-merchants like Mr Sinatra and Mr Martin) with this post-sexual revolution environ in which we find ourselves. It is not enough to simply be chaps and tip your hat to ‘the ladies’ and open doors for them, one must be a human person, tipping your hat to man and woman alike and holding doors open for all. Surely that can be done without macho posturing.

While gimmickry may well be central to the modern dandy (those small visual trappings that set you apart from your ‘competitors’), the implementation of mere gimmicks as revolutionary tools is another general failing of the chaps that prevents them from being the ‘dandyists’ they hope to be. One must choose to be an ambassador of the sublime or a begrimed freedom fighter. But the chaps choose to ignore the individual liberties at the centre of dandyism in favour of a set of rigid civil regulations. The only regime a dandy is likely to adhere to involves moisturiser. For all their effort (damned hard effort, I’m sure), the chaps’ evangelism is bound to fall on deaf ears. Their haughty stance is destined to drive an uncaring public away rather than inspire them to a life of the divine. Their tactics lack the directness of a guerrilla force and buckle under the same self-serving pretensions as protestant church groups. Sadly for us all they are more like the Sally Anns than the Viet Cong. And even less like Mr Wilde than that.

Link: The Guardian on Children in Tweed | The Chap

Stephen O’Hagan | Autumn 2005