Hundreds (or actually thousands...) of fashion-related exhibitions are organised every year all over the world. Most of these exhibitions are accompanied by interesting and well-researched catalogues, that, in some cases, because of lack of funds or of proper time to print them, do not have the aesthetic power of a visually and theoretically rich coffee-table-book.
This is definitely not the case with Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion edited by Kate Irvin and Laurie Anne Brewer and published by Yale University Press in association with the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). While the volume makes a perfect gift for anybody interested in menswear, it is actually also the catalogue for the eponymous current exhibition (until 18th August 2013) at the RISD Museum.
The exhibition celebrates the dandy and features garments and items from the museum collections and loans from other national and international organisations and private individuals. Both the exhibit and the volume accompanying it try to look at the manifestations of the dandy’s style and persona, while examining issues relating to it, such as identity, creativity, and self-representation, and doing so by juxtapositing historical figures with contemporary dandies.
Visitors and readers will therefore get the chance to discover the first dandy Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Cecil Beaton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Max Beerbohm, but also the master and inventor of Pop Art Andy Warhol, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren, United Arrows' Motofumi "Poggy" Kogi and stylist, designer and entrepreneur Ouigi Theodore, among the others.
Short one-page portraits called “musings” by 15 contributors including Glenn O’Brien, Patti Smith, Merlin Holland and Horace Ballard, act as intervals to longer essays by exhibition curators Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer, fashion historian Christopher Breward, and Barnard College English Professor Monica L. Miller. The latter in particular offers us an enlightening essay about black dandysm and Hip Hop that looks at clothing turning from a mere question of style into a proper form of profit for quite a few Hip Hop artists.
The volume mentions a variety of inspiring characters and sources, from London impresario Michael Costiff of Kinky Gerlinky fame to the Congolese sapeurs (Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Élégantes), a movement that from Brazzaville and Kinshasa spread to Europe; from the Tweed Run to London-based textile firm Dashing Tweed.
The photographs included in the volume are definitely one of the highlights: coats, waistcoats and shirts are indeed presented not on static dummies, but hanging in wardrobes, while accessories - such as hats, handkerchiefs and collars - are arranged on tables, as if the curators wanted to return all these pieces to the human and everyday dimension, rather than confining them in a museum archive. Readers who may not be able to see the exhibition can still admire the exquisite details of the garments included from these images and discover online on the exhibition site further photographs that are not featured in the volume.
From the images of modern dandies featured in the volume and from the high profile bloggers and street style photographers camping outside the menswear shows and fashion fairs it is clear that there is a renewed interest in menswear and that men are becoming more adventurous in their style choices.
Yet some of the essays really make you ponder about the dandy then and now: Baudelaire stated that dandysim is the last spark of heroism amid decadence, but some of the young men currently filed under the "modern dandy category" seem more interested in showing off their clothes as a sign of affiliation to an elite or as a celebration of their own appearances than in offering us heroic messages, witty aphorisms, and the powerful rebellious legacy or political activism that some of the original dandies left us.
In a nutshell, in some cases the highly disciplined ascetic attention to details of the new dandies does not have any content and even the media generate further confusion in reporting about them. Scott Schuman, known and revered for the style images and portraits on his blog, ends up sounding not as a creative agitator, but as a a cold observer of Luciano Barbera's style in the musing featured in the volume, confusing a man's tailored elegance with a dandy's impeccable, alternative, individualistic yet slightly twisted style (Barbera is first and foremost an entrepreneur managing a family-owned high-end textile manufacturer and clothing design company, and he has a passion for dressing well, but this doesn't automatically make him a dandy).
Two of the essays in Artist/Rebel/Dandy also offer interesting insights about the irresistible satirical cartoons, prints, sketches and literature inspired by the dandy, from etchings by Robert Cruikshank portraying a dandy in a hilarious fainting fit induced by his corseted waist to Pierce Egan's Life in London, from comic cartoon character Ally Sloper as caricatured by W.G. Baxter to Captain Gronow's memoirs.
Satire is bizarrelly missing in our world: nobody seems too keen on making cartoons and fun sketches of some of the reborn dandies populating the streets of many fashion capitals or of wondering why if we are witnessing a rebirth of dandies, we are not seeing a rebirth of the working class.
Maybe the dandy style we are seeing in the streets of many fashion capitals has something to do with the global uncertain times we're living in, in a nutshell with the chaotic disorder of our age. As Baudelaire indeed wrote in The Painter of Modern Life: "Dandyism appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall".
Time will tell if the neo-dandy represents a genuine form of rebellion or if he is just the embodiment of a standardised exercise in fake sprezzatura. In the meantime, you can visit the Artist/Rebel/Dandy exhibit or read the catalogue: you won't probably be a better dandy afterwards, but you'll definitely have a wider perspective on the art of being one.
Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion is out now; the eponymous exhibition is at the RISD, 224 Benefit Street, Providence, RI 02903, USA, until 18th August 2013.
All images in this post courtesy of Yale University Press
1. Artist/Rebel/Dandy Book Cover
2. W.E.B. Du Bois at the Exposition Universelle International, 1900. Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachussetts Amherst Libraries MS 312.
3. Cecil Beaton, self-portrait as George IV, late 1930s.
4. Richard Merkin, 1978. Eddie Hausner, photographer. New York Times.
5. Michael Costiff wearing Comme des Garçons, 2007. Junichiro Tokumasu, photographer.
6. Sapeurs Firenze Luzolo, Guy Matondo and Ukonda Pangi strike a pose at Parc de Prince in Kinshasa, 2010. Washington Post.
7. Motofumi "Poggy" Kogi, 2011.
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