Manchester City Art Gallery 7th October 2022 to 1st May 2023

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Coming from a time when dark colours were, on the whole, the acknowledged pattern for men’s clothing, and not being a dedicated follower of fashion, I won’t pretend that I’ve ever taken a great deal of interest in what was in and what was out when it came to what to wear. I perhaps made a gesture towards it when, as a young bebop enthusiast in the early 1950s, I wore a drape suit in imitation of the American musicians pictured in the Melody Maker and Jazz Journal. But the army grabbed me in 1954 and when I came out in 1957 bohemianism was very much in the air. I can’t say that I ever took to the modes of dress associated with beatniks and the like. It seemed easier to wear conventional trousers and jackets if I wanted to hold down jobs and not be denied entry to pubs. I had the experience of being with a couple I knew who did look like beatniks and seeing them refused service while the landlord quite happily asked me what I would like to drink.

These thoughts occurred to me as I wandered through the exhibition in Manchester City Art Gallery. It essentially kicks off around the time of Beau Brummell and his associates and demonstrates how their way of wearing clothes was a reaction to the more-ornate and colourful styles that had preceded them. The Macaronis with their tall powdered-wigs and high-heeled shoes lent themselves to being caricatured, and they were by Cruickshank and others. There is a very fine book, Pretty Gentlemen: Macaroni Men and the Eighteenth Century Fashion World by Peter McNeil (Yale University Press, 2018), which explores the activities of the Macaronis and shows them to be more complex, both sartorially and socially, than a simple dismissal of social privilege and affectation would imply.

The dandies could likewise be caricatured even if what they wore seemed restrained in comparison to the Macaronis.  Looking at the enlarged portrait of Brummell which adorns a wall in the gallery reminded me that not everyone admired the dandies. There is a chapter in Ellen Moers’ classic study, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm (Secker & Warburg, 1960) which discusses the reaction from writers like Thackeray and Carlyle to what the dandies represented. She says 1830 was the year “to renounce the Regency and vilify the dandy class”. And she adds that the growing “utilitarian middle-class” saw the dandy as “the epitome of selfish irresponsibility…..the rising majority called for equality, responsibility, energy; the dandy stood for superiority, irresponsibility, inactivity”.

If a copy of the original can be found it’s worth looking at Bulwer Lytton’s novel, Pelham or the Adventures of a Gentleman, originally published in 1828 and celebrated as “the hornbook of dandyism”, to see what caused Carlyle to fulminate against it in his Sartor Resartus.  In later editions Bulwer, anxious to protect his reputation for sobriety in the more strait-laced and morally-disapproving Victorian period, edited out some of the descriptive passages about dandy idleness, self-centredness, and concerns for the way one’s cravat was folded. There were no doubt plenty of Victorians who nodded knowingly and even approvingly when they heard that Brummell, after years of exile in France, had died poverty-stricken, dirty, diseased and insane. 

Moers goes on to say that “Distressingly personal in England, the dandy ideal in France could become an abstraction, a refinement of intellectual rebellion”. Writers like Baudelaire and Barbey d’Aurevilly thought of the dandy in that way. And much later Albert Camus included them in his book, The Rebel: “The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition”.  Should anyone want to read what Barbey d’Aurevilly said about the dandy rebellion, a translation of his essay is included in George Walden’s Who is a Dandy? (Gibson Square Books, 2002). Walden himself has useful things to say : “Yet clothes, it can never be stressed enough, are merely the outward sign of an inner disposition. True dandyism, aristocratic or pseudo-proletarian, is a philosophy. This need not imply a highly intellectual view of the world”.          

By following a personal preoccupation with Brummell I’ve drifted away from the exhibition. But it had its effect by persuading me to get out some books and think about the dandies. Walden’s book, referred to earlier, relates them to our own times and current obsessions with celebrities, self, and how we look. The excesses and refinements of male dress that became evident in the 1960s (in some cases almost back to the Macaronis) are on display in Dandy Style. It’s an informative exhibition, with paintings (Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, Hockney) and photographs to accompany the clothes. Even if the philosophical base for dandyism (if there is one) doesn’t interest you it’s fascinating to see what men have chosen to wear since Beau Brummell made his innovative alterations to how they should dress.