Jim (and Jane) Dandy to the rescue.
In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” French poet Charles Baudelaire considers “dandyism,” a fad which swept Paris during the Second Empire, a putsch that put Napoleon’s nephew Louis Philippe on the throne. “[D]andyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism,” Baudelaire observes, “but a dandy can never be a vulgar man.” He continues: “For those who are its high priests and its victims at one and the same time, all the complicated material conditions they subject themselves to, from the most flawless dress at any time of day or night to the most risky sporting feats, are no more than a series of gymnastic exercises suitable to strengthen the will and school the soul.” The dandy in his most splendidly plumed person encompasses devotion to the sacred; he is the pharmakos upon whom the sins of citoyens are heaped for expiation.
Baudelaire notes that the dandyism cult is a system of worship that arises only under certain social or political conditions. “Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited.” Such hybrid moments tend to breed hybrid prodigies whose outward aspects are strikingly novel, all flash and poise and sprezzatura, but whose inward impulse is drearily familiar:
In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to break down because established on the most precious, the most indestructible faculties, on the divine gifts that neither work nor money can give.
That the confusion of such times — times like Baudelaire’s, which oscillated from revolutionary republicanism to reactionary empire under Napoleon III, or like our own, which lurches from boom to bust in increasingly shorter cycles — produces a contingent of disenchanted and leisured “outsiders” intent on re-asserting an aristocracy of sorts comes as no surprise; rigid and iniquitous class arrangements, while offering little in terms of individual life possibilities, certainly clarify things. It may just be that humans are genetically predisposed to such an arrangement, preferring the unambiguous protocols of aristocracy to the muddle of democracy. Even the ancient Israelites grew dissatisfied with the judges God sent to see to things and demanded that Samuel appoint a king to govern them.
But the dandy’s atavism is, according to Baudelaire, not without a measure of pathos. “Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent age,” he continues: “[It] is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy.” As the sun sets on the American empire, its dollar hegemony under serious fire front the rest of the world, a star in decline, light without heat (which is perhaps not technically true, because nothing heats things up like a nuclear warhead), are both tropes that one could without indulging undue hyperbole apply to the United States.
From the mash-up tendencies of a mash-up generation springs a Parnassus of prerogative long held in abeyance to cast its shadow upon the burgeoning light of culturally democratizing social media.
It’s fitting, then, that the capital of this ailing Leviathan, Washington D. C., would witness the rebirth of the dandy. The November 16 edition of The Washington Post reports on the recent event of “the District’s first-ever tweed ride, in which dapper cyclists … sally forth across town simply because it promises to be a jolly good time.” A city made captive to the divertissement of nattily dressed twentysomethings certainly reeks of the attempt to resurrect something of the form, if not the content, of Belle Epoque distinctions. Reporter Dan Zak, the Post piece’s author, sniffed this very implication out himself. He asks, “Is this [tweed ride] mere dress-up? Folderol on wheels? Another hipster stab at spontaneous coordination, flash-mob conformity in the name of pretentious originality?” One would answer Zak simply by saying that, when it comes to hipsters, the tweed ride is all of these things at once. What’s past is prelude, to be sure, but what hipsters reveal is that, albeit in a different manner than Karl Marx imagined it, everything in history does happens twice: first as tragedy, then as farrago. “A mash-up generation has mash-up tendencies,” the Post story continues.
We steal the tailored vests of the Victorian era for our office wardrobe, we play Gatsby in whatever neo-speakeasy has opened around the corner, we add a tie clip to evoke Don Draper and we hop on our mustard-colored vintage Schwinn for a tweed ride.
And like every such group devoted to the recherche or picayune, the D.C. tweed riders have a club dubbed “Dandies and Quaintrelles.” The masthead for this club’s website bears the slogan, “Redemption through style.” Just what sort of redemption is left to the reader’s imagination, though one doubts its comes through mortification of the flesh, as tweed-sheathed legs find themselves abraded by the action of pumping fixed-gear pedals. Rather, their devotions are precisely those which Baudelaire identifies in “The Painter of Modern Life” — the austerities of the impeccable toilet, the starched collar, the gestures and flourishes of grand deportment.
From the mash-up tendencies of a mash-up generation springs a Parnassus of prerogative long held in abeyance to cast its shadow upon the burgeoning light of culturally democratizing social media. Dandies and quaintrelles enter into a most ambivalent composition with cyberspace. On one hand, it suits the practical need of enlisting other dandies and quaintrelles; on the other, it presents them with the practical problem of other enlisting other dandies and quainterelles. Distinctions cheaply achieved are no distinctions at all. Indeed, these dandies and quaintrelles find the world — the online world particularly — is too much with them. If the Internet has taught them anything, it’s that vulgarity is but a hyperlink away.
Of course, to hear them tell it, these dandies and quaintrelles believe otherwise. They consider theirs a mission of confraternity and solidarity — one nation under houndstooth, you might say. The Post story quotes one tweed rider, Eric Brewer, who at 41 is a sort of Gen-X elder statesmen of the D&Q scene:
“I think dandyism could build bridges from different crowds through attire,” says Brewer, who works in video production and is a partner in the H Street art gallery Dissident Display. “You dress to find your social clique in D. C., from Georgetown preppy to hipster central along 14th Street and H Street. And I think dandyism can sort of unify people, where you don’t stay within the confines of an accepted appearance.”
Brewer invokes a narrow spectrum for his rainbow coalition. Hip-hoppers and heshers, one gathers, need not apply. How this wished-for amalgam of social cliques is supposed to happen within the dissolving medium of dandyism is not entirely certain. One imagines that all this supposed de-cliquing can only lead to dislocation and anomie, as hipsters parasitize preppiedom and preppies extract some of the value hipsters have added to the preppie look. A climate of antagonism, recrimination, and refusal would likely follow, proving ruinous to the urbane charms of a Saturday’s cycling.
Perhaps the impulse toward the strange symbolic economy these hipsters wish to inaugurate with their twee tweed rides arrives from a sense of fatalism they feel with regard to the real economy.
If dandies and quaintrelles were better students of the history whose fashions they ape, they’d know that the bicycle, once it effected its transition from a “penny farthing” to a “safety” design, became a revolutionary sensation, not because it encouraged snobbery, but because it threatened it. The July December 1896 edition of The Review of Reviews (kind of like a catalogue of catalogues) digests a tongue-in-cheek diatribe by one T.B. Bishop that originally appeared in the Forum. Mr. Bishop observes that the popularity of bicycle riding has led to all sorts of innovations. “Of no other form of popular exercise, or excursion, can it be said that it is so conducive to good manners, simple conduct, and kindly intercourse as bicycle-riding. It brings all classes together when all are in a condition of healthy enjoyment and physical content.” Mr. Bishop recognizes that the true camaraderie of bicycle riding comes not from the supercilious airs one puts on while engaged in the activity, but the true inclusiveness of the activity itself.
Such easy democracy seems, however, as distasteful (dare one say “beastly?”) to today’s D. C. hipster as it was to the grandees of Mr. Bishop’s Gilded Age. Perhaps the impulse toward the strange symbolic economy these hipsters wish to inaugurate with their twee tweed rides arrives from a sense of fatalism they feel with regard to the real economy. Maybe they feel they’ve been crushed under the chariot wheels of finance capital, whose axemen and water bearers they encounter every day.
The German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin writes that “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history.” Hipsters, it’s clear, promise to make good this principle. Benjamin hastens to add however, that “only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past–which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” The dandy and quaintrelle’s tweed-ride project is from a Benjaminian perspective preposterous in the literal sense: It puts the citations of the past — made sartorially in the present instance — before redemption, not after it. To promise “redemption through style” as the D&Qs website does amounts to saying that redemption follows style. That unredeemed humankind — and, from Benjamin’s mystical-Marxian point of view, modern humankind is decidedly, pointedly unredeemed — engages in such a revival of the past can only be regarded as a travesty, if indeed not a catastrophe.
“That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe,” was a favorite maxim of Benjamin’s. The dandy–quaintrelle hipster set wishes to revive older, historically specific status quos as a means of bolstering the present status quo. This is their version of the dandy’s heroism — and in it they show themselves doubly catastrophic.
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