Blue Stocking

Fine and dandy

George “Beau” Brummell, watercolour by Richard Dighton (1805)

The metrosexual drone is dead and the tech bro is yesterday’s icon: long live the dandy. He stalks the red carpet in black tulle and the catwalk in pearls; as a teen he comes to breakfast wearing diamond hoops and a crochet crop top, and as a senior he invests in a fuchsia Shetland sweater. Even the V&A is unpicking men’s penchant for dressing-up, in their new exhibition Fashioning Masculinities. The peacocking male is back.

It’s been slim pickings for dandy spotters since the power-suited ’80s, when the best one could hope for was a pair of red braces or a Sloane male sporting Rupert Bear trousers. Worse was to come as Silicon Valley rose to dominance and it was all hoodies and trainers; only Italy remained as the last bastion of Lo Splendido, the flamboyant male in a cloud of sprezzatura and aftershave.

But while there are promising signs of a revival on the catwalk, a dandy sighting is rare on the pavement. So it was cause for celebration when I spotted two generations of the 21st-century peacock on a recent weekend to Norfolk, in the form of award-winning architect Meredith Bowles, resplendent in scarlet and stripes (and openly coveting my burnt-orange, velvet Venetian slippers), with his son Felix in matelot singlet, dangly earrings and cloud of golden curls.

The Dapper Dan never disappears for long. If, in the bird world, the male tends to be showier than the female, (supposedly because his priority is to attract a mate rather than keep a low profile, egg-sitting), peacocking is also popular with human males, especially if they have funds to feed the habit. Portraits of Henry VIII reveal him to be a more opulent dresser than any of his wives, while the most cursory glance at any portrait of a Medici male – particularly if it’s by Titian – yields up sumptuous costume heaven in the form of velvet, lace, and rubies the size of golf balls. Titian’s women, on the other hand, are famously naked, but that’s a different chapter in the age-old narrative of sex, power and egg-sitting.

Thanks to Beau Brummell (1778-1840), the most notorious male fashion plate of them all, there’s a good case for identifying the Georgian era as the heyday of the flamboyant man. Brummell took five hours to get dressed and is said to have polished his boots with champagne. The novels of the period are also rich in fancy dressers: my own favourite is the floridly stout Jos Sedley from Vanity Fair, addicted to squeezing himself into brocade waistcoats; but there are so many references to delicious uniforms in the literature, one suspects every Regency soldier to have enlisted purely for the gorgeous frogging and nicely-fitting red trousers.

But fashion is as cyclical for men as for women (and never too far removed from the political and moral climate). As the curled wigs and lace collars of the powdered and jewelled Cavaliers were stamped out in favour of Puritan monochrome and long faces, so did the triumphantly louche Georgian male have to surrender – if not quite so painfully – to the repressive Victorian paterfamilias.

The twentieth century, despite being blighted by war and recession, delivered up first the Bright Young Things in the ’20s, their figurehead Stephen Tennant in feathers and sequins, then the zoot-suited ’40s. Thereafter they came thick and fast: Teddy-boys in drape jackets and glam-rockers in Tommy Nutter lapels, Ziggy Stardust in lurex spandex, and punk boys jingling their bondage buckles. The apogee was the ’80s New Romantic voguer, sporting leg-of-mutton sleeves and eyeliner.

It is in the gender-quake of the 1960s, though, that 2022’s man of fashion – unafraid to embrace the feminine and reeling from the privations of lockdown – has his roots. It was the 1967 Summer of Love, under the influence of a potent cocktail of mind-enhancing drugs, liberalism and affluence, that offered us the enduring image of a couple hand in hand, in psychedelic florals with hair down to their waists – a sight that mortally offended the bowler-hatted establishment, who found themselves unable to distinguish boys from girls, and brought on a drag revolution.

So as gender fluidity hits the accelerator, let’s turn a blind eye to nerd casuals, pretend the pandemic’s trackie-bottoms never happened and time-warp back to Carnaby Street. The world is your catwalk, gents. Get on and strut.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

Arts & Culture

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