„How many Beau Brummells can waltz on the head of a tailor’s needle?“ – Book review: „I am Dandy“
„I am Dandy“ is a most lovely book that originated out of photographer’s Rose Callahan’s portraits of sartorially gifted gentlemen as featured on her blog „The Dandy Portraits“. It has been enriched by Nathaniel Adams‘ interviews and portraits that offer insights into the philosophy behind the clothes and charming phrases like this one: „I think that the word dandy has two meanings. The first is colloquial, and just means ‚an exceptionally well-dressed man‘ […] the second definition is a more elusive, archetypal one, the kind of thing academics go into ecstasies over when they’re not trying to figure out how many Beau Brummells can waltz on the head of a tailor’s needle“. There have been debates about the appropriateness of the book’s title which evidently has been the publisher’s choice as the authors would have preferred a different one. As they state in their book, only few of the men featured qualify or would call themselves a dandy. Be it as it may, the book definitely profiles a vast array of fashionable men, eccentric dressers and masters of elegance. They share a passion and talent for fashion and dressing which, in many cases, has been with them since early childhood. Evidently, their art is a calling.
There are some leitmotifs attending the book that inevitably justify the title, though. First, there is the fundamental condition of the dandy being the singular being opposing the crowd. „I am Dandy“ neatly illustrates the importance of fashion in distinguishing oneself from the masses. We remember Baudelaire saying: „Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.“ Being ‚just‘ a symbol, the role of fashion in the construction of the dandy’s elevated persona is profound as Dickon Edwards attests: „I dress like this so I don’t fade into the crowd“. The book demonstrates the relation of fashion and dandyistic isolatedness very well, as the accompanying words capture the intellectual foundation of outward appearances. Whether it’s Robert E. Bryan stating „I do think I’m superior“, Gay Talese who remarks: „I didn’t want to join the group, I didn’t want to be part of a group“, Nicholas Foulkes‘ statement: „If I find myself in a group I gravitate toward the edge“, Patrick McDonald confirming „I never conformed to the pressures of people around me“, Ray Frensham declaring „I have always felt different […] Not superior or better than others, just separate, apart…an outsider? An observer? Thus, for me being on my own is a ’natural state’“, Michael Davis asssertion: „It’s comforting not to have to care what anyone thinks“ or David Carter saying „I want to be an outsider,“ the demarcation from the masses, one of the basics of dandyism, is apparent.
Another fact that is very well illustrated by the book is that dandyism is a lifestyle that focuses very much on refined aesthetics. The men portrayed are no fashionistas, changing their style every other season as new trends emerge. Quite the contrary: they have developed a unique style that interfuses all aspects of life. When Kevin Wang remarks that wearing a suit „has made me act more polite,“ he refers to underlying psychology of dressing, i.e. it’s function in assigning social status. The dandy’s lifestyle is marked by a strong feeling for aesthetic beauty which is captured in the beautiful photographs that focus not only on the men’s clothes but also their everyday surroundings. Rose Callahan captures the details expertly and the reader understands what Fyodor A. Pavlov means when he says he intends to „bring more beauty to the world“. Obviously, this fanatism for aesthetics refers back to the dandy’s contempt of the masses. Victor Allen Crawford III, also known as Lord Whimsy, remarks accordingly: „Dressing poorly degrades everyday life as much as behaving poorly,“ while Iké Udé states that „Dandyism […] is about infusing the quotidian with poetry,“ both refering to the lack of beauty in our daily routines. Moreover, Zack Macleod Pinsent asserts: „I don’t dress like this to attract attention, but because life is too short to be dull,“ while Winston Chesterfield captures the thought quite well in his statement: „I care about the general aesthetic of the world from a purely selfish point of view, […] I want my eyes to enjoy the world.“ Even though he would not call himself a dandy, this is a most dandyistic statement as it accentuates the dandy’s independence from the crowd that he paradoxically cannot escape and requires to set himself apart from.
Certainly, some of the men portrayed in this book qualify as dandies, others less so. While there have been several types of dandyism since it’s inception, i.e. the elegant, the eccentric, the butterfly, the variety has grown in the postmodern age. „I am Dandy“ succeeds in displaying this range of dandyistic assertions as the book features new dandy types that incorporate elements of the hipster, the gangster and the „cool guy“. Accordingly, Adams states that we are „at the dawn of a new golden age of dandyism, after several dark decades of vulgarity.“ While some of the men portrayed glorify the past, others joyfully experiment with modern elements. After all, the book confirms the fundamental paradox of the dandy who is unique but also categorized. In it’s variety of men portrayed, the book is not only interesting but also fun to read and look at. The photographs can keep you occupied for hours, not only because of the many details but also because every single portrait invites you to a singular world provoking thoughts and questions.