The Disadvantage of Retrospect

For my June 2016 menswear column in the Style Advisor, I interviewed two of my favourite people, Barima and Winston, and asked them to dispel the greatest misconception about dandies. We had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation, as we always do, and from that I distilled this essential distinction.

Winston Chesterfield and Barima Owusu-Nyantekyi are two stylish Londoners whose portraits are featured in the book “I Am Dandy”. However when I took them out for Gin Gibsons at Bar Américain in Soho, they both told me that they do not self-identify as dandies.

It seems the word “dandy” has drifted from its correct definition. A well-dressed man who favours vintage accessories will cut a fine figure, but to truly earn the title of dandy, a man has to do much more.

A real dandy is a rebel in his own time whose influence manifests a lasting effect on fashion. The first, Beau Brummell, led the masculine renunciation of frock coats and hose, upholding the paradox of conspicuous understatement that defines masculine fashion to this day. When he was the Prince of Wales, King Edward VII made it acceptable for men to wear informal short coats. The Duke of Windsor made glen plaid and double-breasted coats an acceptable part of a well-dressed man’s wardrobe. These individuals changed the way men wore clothes forever after.

This means, as Winston told me, that dandies have the “disadvantage of retrospect”. To the modern eye, historical dandies appear quite conventional, and we’re unable to appreciate how outrageous their attire was in context. So it follows that the word dandy gets applied to men who wear retro styles when in fact it should really be applied to men who are introducing shocking new ideas. A twenty-first century dandy might be putting forward a relatively absurd concept like formal exercise gear or adapting women’s clothing to a new type of masculine expression.

Therefore it will be impossible to name the modern dandy until decades from now we find most men have started to dress like him.