History & Mythology

Dandy in 4 Minutes: Who They Were and What They Wore

An arrogant reveller in tight trousers? Or a dashing soul with a colorful neckerchief, Breguet and a turtle on a leash? Of all the associations people have when they think of a “dandy”, few are focused on much more than an individual’s style and fashion. In reality, the history of the dandy is far more complex. Let's see how this iconic cultural phenomenon came to life.

How dandy looked

The dictionary definition of a dandy is a man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable. In the 19th century the basis of the dandy's wardrobe was a perfectly tailored monochromatic dark tailcoat. Simple enough, you might think. But it was the other elements of their attire that were the more noticeable, in particular the bright vests and fantastically knitted scarves.

An emphasis was also given to gloves: again, perfectly cut, they could be changed up to five or six times a day!

What's behind the cover?

Yet being a dandy is not only about appearance and a certain style of clothing. It’s also about a code of conduct. Here are some principles of a dandy’s life:
  1. The rule of equanimity: do not be surprised by anything.
  2. Surprise others while staying dispassionate. In other words, a dandy reserves the right to perform extravagant acts, pranks and arrogant antics.
  3. Leave once the impression is achieved.

In this way, Dandies understand that they are like a strong spice—good to have, but there can be too much of it.

As contradictory as it sounds, therefore, the dandy had to practice a level of minimalism in everything - in speech and in gestures, as well as their outfits. But this minimalism is not about modesty, it is about retaining a level of aloofness or untouchability and cold politeness.

Why in the 19th century and why in England?

Many of the most famous dandies in history have an association with London. Why London?

First, London has for centuries been a cultural capital of fashion and luxury. And, secondly, unlike France and Germany, there were no revolutions or wars that took place on British soil. This stability allowed dandies to flourish.

If we also look at the cultural context, the phenomenon of dandyism arises at the intersection of two antagonistic ideologies. On the one hand, Enlightenment and 
on the other hand - Romanticism. 

The end of the dandyism era

The industrial revolution, the acceleration of processes, the development of capitalism in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and soon the First World War did not serve to benefit dandyism. It was an era when standardization was prioritised, … whereas dandyism stresses uniqueness. It was a closed subculture and if you did not come from an aristocratic background, entry was forbidden. So as the aristocracy as we know it today began to die out, so did dandyism.

Dandy after dandy

But, despite the decline of dandies as individuals, the phenomenon of dandyism lives on stronger than ever today. Fashion historians say that it was dandyism that became the driving force of Coco Chanel's new femininity. Just look how much dandyism prevails in so many of her creations – especially her tight trousers, gloves, and scarves.

The modern-day dandy has become more about fashion than the historical iteration ever was. It could be argued that many American sports stars who arrive to their games in expensive, flashy, peacocking clothes are the closest thing we have today to a 19th century dandy.  

But given that dandyism was tied less to the garments, and more closely tied to aristocratic practices and etiquette that was borne from it, it’s almost impossible nowadays to find a “dandy” as it has been historically defined.
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