May 182013

The influence of two centuries of dandies on fashion—and the artful, strategic, ready-for-the-paparazzi self-presentation at the heart of modern celebrity—is on wide-ranging and colorful display in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum exhibit.

Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion. At Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, R.I. Through August 28, 2013.

Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion. Edited by Kate Irvin and Laurie Ann Brewer. With essays by Kate Irvin, Laurie Anne Brewer, Christopher Breward, and Monica L. Miller, preface by Thom Browne. Yale University Press, New Haven, 208 pages; 125 color +20 b/w illus.; Cloth $50

By Debra Cash.

A Dandy Extraordinaire — Sebastian Horsley. Photo: Tom Medwell

You don’t have to have the word “DANDY” tattooed in red block letters on your inner right arm like steampunker Doran Wittelsbach, he of the waxed moustache and artfully cocked fedora, to stand out in a crowd. Men who do go the extra mile beyond cleaning up good and donning nicely coordinated outfits with matching socks make statements that western culture has had a hard time parsing. Called flaneurs, fops, toffs, popinjays, “monkey paraders,” and a number of names that challenge their manliness if not their sanity, dandies have been fanning their peacock tails and thumbing their collective noses at staid society since British Regency icon Beau Brummel (1778–1840) buttoned his first waistcoat and put a gold buckle on his cravat.

The influence of two centuries of dandies on fashion—and the artful, strategic, ready-for-the-paparazzi self-presentation at the heart of modern celebrity—is on wide-ranging and colorful display in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD) exhibit Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion. The RISD show is hardly the first time men’s costume was recently in the spotlight. Two years ago, during a visit to Philadelphia, I caught The Peacock Male, a historical show covering 300 years of male fashion paired with a more intimate tribute to twentieth-century master tailor Francis Toscani of H. Daroff and Sons in Tailoring Philadelphia: Tradition and Innovation in Menswear. Stephen Jones’s hats at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem included toppers that are de rigueur weapons in the dandy’s arsenal. (Alongside the hats worn by Patrick McDonald in the RISD show, New England museum-goers have certainly gotten an education in the art of contemporary millinery.)

Certainly, the much commented upon punk fashion retrospective now on at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, with its demonstration of how oppositional attitude dissolves into commodity culture, reflects more than its fair share of dandyism. In a clip selected for the RISD Museum from The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Malcolm McLaren, wearing “bondage trousers” and tartan jacket over a tee-shirt that reads “Cash from Chaos,” was styled in collaboration with Vivienne Westwood. (My award for tee-shirt slogan, however, is reserved for McLaren and Westwood’s 1976 “Only Anarchists are Pretty.”)

Installation view, ARTIST/REBEL/DANDY: MEN OF FASHION, through August 18 at the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.

Nevertheless, the RISD Museum exhibit and its richly-illustrated accompanying catalog are full of thought-provoking delights. The provenance of the items on display are worth the price of admission. There, almost close enough to touch: The shirt Oscar Wilde never retrieved from the laundry, monogrammed with his French pseudonym! Andy Warhol’s peroxide wig and the paint-spattered shoes that Ferragamo reissued in a limited edition complete with paint spatters on the toe! Tom Wolfe’s vanilla coachman’s cape over his signature, white three-piece! Motofumi “Poggy” Kofi’s suit made with an elaborate print that, on close inspection, reveals Hello Kitty characters riding around on double decker buses!

The photos are almost as evocative: W. E. B. Du Bois wearing a Prince Albert style frock coat and silk top hat that gleams like a mirror at the Exposition Universelle International in 1900, an unequivocal challenge to stereotype. Patti Smith’s near-reliquary photograph of her friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s empty, monogrammed slippers. Images of “sapeurs” dancing in Kinshasa while wearing suits of lime green and sunshine yellow daubed by the flashes of their contrasting pocket handkerchiefs.

You need to see the historical photos to appreciate that female-to-male cross dressing is a matter of context. Where British sculptor Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, with her monocle, and Romaine Brooks with her tuxedo shirt and bow tie, were early twentieth-century lesbian scandals, rocker Patti Smith’s Baudelairian suit with a peace button among its lapel decorations and Diane Keaton’s Chaplinesque Ralph Lauren suit-with-bowler ensemble are just Patti and Diane being their “iconic” straight girl celebrity selves.

Instructively, Kate Irvin and Laurie Ann Brewer don’t restrict Artist/Rebel/Dandy to visual dazzle. In videos and basted exemplars, they show the intricacy of fine tailoring and offer a yummy series of caressable samples from the Dashing Tweed archive of a bicycle-tread pattern in three color ways that amplify the chevrons to different degrees. There are fabric sample books and clips from a 2011 documentary on Harris Tweed that, I imagine, isn’t a huge seller on Netflix. While this exhibit keeps its eye on the peacock’s plumage, the labor of scores of millworkers, tailors, and merchants is never completely effaced.

Nor is the role and presumption of class. Dressing as a dandy rarely comes cheap. Brummell estimated that it would cost £800 a year to “keep a single man in clothes,” at a time when craftsmen earned £1 a week. The costs go up exponentially when dressing well means also eating well, drinking or drugging well, traveling well, and (most likely) gambling well. It’s not at all surprising that the quietly elegant suits of Fiat industrialist Gianni Agnelli are still being worn by his stylish grandson Lapo Elkann: my great-grandmother, a garment worker, used to say that anything really well made would come back into style if you just held onto it long enough.

The RISD curators make one tactical mistake and one important elision. Where Beau Brummell is given pride of place as the progenitor of all this self-conscious male splendor, on close inspection it turns out that during his heyday, his care in dress was exemplified not by outrageousness but by a distinct turn to plainer, refined taste. It’s hard to know without reading the catalog that Brummell’s dress cleansed the palate of powdered wigs, red high heels, and rouge. This exhibit would have benefitted from comparison images of these historic figures’ more conventionally-dressed contemporaries.

Installation view of Richard Merkin’s suit and jackets, ARTIST/REBEL/DANDY: MEN OF FASHION, through August 18 at the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.

The exhibit’s elision is its truncated exploration of hip hop fashion. Artist/Rebel/Dandy includes pieces of clothing, bracing photos including Hanif Abdur Rahim’s 2010 quadruple portrait Revolution in Etiquette-Connoisseurs of SWAG, and a slam poet reciting “Sewn From The Soul” by Joe Kenneth Museau in Alejandro Perez’s video. However, the exhibit doesn’t ask hard questions about whether previous forms of rapper finery offered a challenge or alternative to dandyism’s dress code. The catalog’s thoughtful essay by Monica L. Miller noting the shift from velour tracksuits to bespoke suits is a necessary corrective. “You might say,” Miller suggests, “that black dandyism is one of the first black arts.”

Sometimes clothes do make the man.

c 2013 Debra Cash


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  One Response to “Fuse Visual Arts Review: Fine and Dandy at RISD”

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  1. An alert reader turned me onto the confessions of Buzz Bissinger, for those fascinated by the inner life of a dandy who owns *81* leather jackets.


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