The Self-Advertising Male

Philip Mann, The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century

Head of Zeus, 370pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781786695178

reviewed by Stuart Walton

It is the melancholy of manifest individualism that it proves to be anything but inimitable. What begins as the exquisite crafting of the esoteric persona, initially conceived against the prevailing orthodoxy, becomes reified into a style for others to emulate, and before one has blinked, a whole social movement, or the fleeting fancy of this week, has been generated from the most minute scrutiny of the self. Individualism depends, fatally, on a surrounding milieu of homogeneous conformism, in the perspective of which it defines itself, but has never come to terms with the tendency of conformity to be a powerful dissolvent, the more so since a culture predicated on competitive individualism has produced rule-bound collectivities of taste and of judgment far sterner than those dreamed into being by Kant.

Philip Mann's Götterdämmerung of the self-advertising male, despite its shining the excursion guide's torch along some well-trodden pathways, is illuminating precisely because it confronts these paradoxes head on. A sartorial commentator and art historian, he demonstrates an almost neurasthenic sensitivity to style and eccentric self-fashioning in their rise and decline, but with an unillusioned perception that such a decline was written into the notion of personal style in the first place, as is reflected in the title of a rewarding study that penetrates several layers deeper into the terrain than most such projects have done.

An impressive opening meditation on the birth of modernity out of Georgian decadence situates the topic in its proper relation to conventionality. 'The dandy masters convention,' he writes, 'to such a degree of perfection that he transcends it.' That the goal of standing out from society is a moving target is indicated by the half-dozen character portraits that follow. If George Brummell's gorgeously cut suits raised sartorial propriety to a pitch of fanatical elegance without the need to delve into the dressing-up box, by the time the narrative has arrived at latter-day exemplars such as Sebastian Horsley in his scarlet suit and stovepipe hat, the nuances have dropped among the clumps of forget-me-nots along the wayside. That in itself, though, is the lesson taught by dandyism. It has to run fast to stay ahead of the pack.

What helped enormously in past eras was that social consensus was bolstered by adamantine authority in the form of published etiquette manuals, the editorials of society magazines and the pronouncements of publications such as Tailor and Cutter, the Variety of gentlemen's outfitting, which uttered reflexive proclamations of doom at every minute alteration in male fashion, and is surely overdue a resuscitation. Commenting on the growing American-influenced habit of forsaking manly braces in favour of holding one's trousers up with a belt, as though cinching a sack of turnips, its editorial warned that '[s]lackness in dress will in the long run make for slackness in behaviour, and it is not so wild as it sounds to say that society will fall to pieces and man will revert to a state of savagery'. It was exactly as wild, and as prescient.

While he focuses recurrently on clothing as the outward indicator of non-conformist sensibility, delineating the transformations of Alain Delon's suiting in Jean-Pierre Melville's late films with forensic exactitude, Mann is too inquisitive a thinker to leave matters at that. The idea, after all, that clothes maketh the man is a tediously conformist piece of intelligence, and virtually everything else about the luminaries who pass in review through this book is more interesting than what they wore, with the possible exception of Bunny Roger, who was himself, not incidentally, a couturier who managed to see active service against Mussolini in full makeup, while perched on a gilt chair in a mauve-lined tent. By contrast, Adolf Loos remade the modern city while he tinkered with the height of his overcoat belt. The Duke of Windsor and his paramour made a thoroughgoing attempt to sell Britain on the idea of Nazism while he bemoaned the predilection of the British for boiling their shirts. Melville and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were strikingly innovative, and intermittently successful, filmmakers. Quentin Crisp was one of the last century's most intuitive dialectical social philosophers. That they look good, or stunningly silly, in the photographs feels rather by the by.

It would naturally be foolish to marginalise dress in any self-respecting materialist theory of history. Walter Benjamin commented that whatever the eternal in human history turned out to be, it was probably 'more like the lace trimmings on a dress than like an idea'. But there is always more. When self-promotion lacks the capacity for self-reflection, both the self-promoting and their captive audiences are in for a dreary time. Mann strikes a rare false note when, in discussing the slow decline of modernist aesthetics after the failed political upheavals of the 1960s, he suggests that May 1968 was more about style than politics. That is precisely the triumphantly banal demeanour of an etiolated cohort of fashion casualties that wouldn't know self-reflection if it happened on it in the changing-room mirrors at Balenciaga.

The evocations of dusk and melancholy announce that dandyism already knows, in all eras, that it is doomed, and probably, since the 1980s, for good. To a society that didn't care to go deeper than the cut of the tailoring, it looked a lot less delicious than the lapels. Flamboyant individuality has always been prepared to sacrifice happiness, Mann notes, in contrast to today's poseurs. It's why the Duke of Windsor, whose face, in Cecil Beaton's resonant estimation, looked 'too impertinent to be tragic', sits rather uneasily in a gallery of authentic decadence. From Brummell onwards, style demands 'a life that oscillates continuously between the poorhouse and the Ritz', rooted in moribund nostalgia with the emphasis on the -algia, romanticising dingy suicide and consumptive illness, and given to a morbidly solipsistic view of relations with others. Loos advised his second wife to have her legs surgically lengthened to overcome her genetic inelegance. She didn't. Other people are endlessly disappointing.

In a superb epilogue, Mann observes that decadent melancholy has turned in the postmodern era to boring depression, with its armoury of pharmaceuticals. The injunction to 'just be yourself', heard everywhere from self-help manuals to the metered consulting-rooms of the therapy industry, is a forlorn counsel of mendacity in an era when the freedom to be oneself has dwindled to a weedy mythology. Avowals of cultural pessimism can reap a harvest of wordless 'likes' on Facebook, effectively neutering their hopeless attempt to swim against the riptide of idiot consensus. And don't get him started on the soi-disant dandifiers of today: 'London and Paris are full of creatures in perfectly researched period outfits, but with a few exceptions they give the unmistakable impression they will get back into jeans and fleeces once the fancy dress party is over.'

The problem with pursuing an exercise in self-transformation from the outside in is that it too often risks exactly that epidermal superficiality for which Mann excoriates postmodernity. Immaculately cut suits, which have so often proved the dernier cri of physical allure in the clad male body, speak a worrying subtext of misplaced priorities. A man this interested in himself is not much interested in anybody else. By the same token, lavish eccentricity in dress, adopted for its own sake rather than for the purpose of cultural subversion, is the infallible indicator of a pedestrian mind. Horsley, lifting an aperçu verbatim from Julie Burchill's first novel, concurred with her view of tattoos that 'you make a mark on your body when you can't make a mark on your life.’ The result either way is an inevitable conservatism, the preoccupation with custom and manner at the expense of spirit, which is decanted into apparel that one literally puts on and takes off at will, until it no longer fits the waist of shame.

How productive of social change and human advancement can the vagaries of fashion and its antipodes be? This is of nil interest, axiomatically, to a figure who rescues himself from the obscurity of society's shadowlands by hyperbolic exaggeration, or parodic inversion, of its visual mores. Getting done up to the nines to walk among the gawping herd, he never quite knows whether he wants people to stare, or recoils at the lack of couth of the gogglers and gigglers. You can dye your hair until your hair falls out, but the world goes on turning. When you project yourself into your own ideology, yourself is all there is, which is why you're doomed to a permanent condition of entropy at the blue hour of life's daytime. As Crisp put it, 'Even a marriage with oneself may not last forever.’

Sartorial self-engineering, for all its vaunted objectivisation of the inner life, is more often a displacement activity. In his author portrait on the book-flap, Philip Mann is wearing an appalling tie, and yet he has written a book of judicious discernment. Quod erat demonstrandum.