Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Dancing Marquess

An excerpt from my article in the latest issue of The Chap on Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey:

The Marquess was famously described by Clough Williams-Ellis as “a sort of apparition – a tall, elegant and bejeweled creature, with wavering elegant gestures, reminding one rather of an Aubrey Beardsley illustration come to life.” The Omaha Daily Bee described him more bluntly: “He is a thoroughly effeminate looking young fellow and he may be seen when in Paris walking around with a toy terrier under his arm, the pet being heavily scented and bedizened with bangles and bows. The fingers of the marquis fairly blaze with rings. He presents the characteristics of the Gypsy type.” His lifestyle was no less lavish; one newspaper reported that his bedroom was “draped in mauve velvet, with hanging figures of solid silver. Its ornaments were of filigree and gold, and its tables crowded with bottles of the most costly perfumes. His ‘boudoir’ was of green and gold. He had three valets and a ‘coiffer,’ all of whom earned their high salaries, for it was no unusual thing for this modern Beau Brummel to spend a whole morning ‘working out’ some special scheme of color by dint of combining the effects of neckties, trousers, waistcoats and ‘spats,’ discarding, one by one, such as failed to ‘harmonize.’”...
...In 1901 he hired a company of professional actors at an inflated salary to go on a European tour with him. They travelled with their own orchestra and needed five trucks to carry their scenery and equipment....Paget travelled in a custom automobile modeled after a Pullman railcar, complete with leather furniture, wooden fixtures, and a baroque carved ceiling. The exhaust pipe was modified to spray scent: sometimes violet, sometimes patchouli, sometimes l’eau d’Espagne........But Paget’s most famous act was the “Butterfly Dance,” which earned him the nickname “The Dancing Marquess.” He would perform this at the intermission of his productions, after which he would hand out picture postcards of himself to the undoubtedly bewildered audiences.
Lord Berners was in the audience at one of the Marquess’s “performances” in Munich, and he said that it “came between that of a lady with performing pigeons and a company of acrobats. The theatre was darkened. There was a roll on the drums and the curtain went up on Lord Anglesey clad in a white silk tunic, a huge diamond tiara on his head, glittering with necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and rings. He stood there fore a few minutes motionless, without any mannequin gestures of display. Then the curtain went down again period…The German audience seemed a little disconcerted by the manifestation of British eccentricity.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dandies and Aesthetes

Last week I visited a seminar course on Oscar Wilde at New York University to speak about dandyism with the students. It was an excellent opportunity for me to hear from students of the humanities who had read the foundational texts of dandyism (D’Aurevilly’s “On Dandyism,” excerpts from Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life,” and Max Beerbohm’s “Dandies and Dandies,”) rather than just people with an interest in menswear. I had also resolved to answer any of their less typical questions on this blog, and one in particular stood out: the relationship and difference between dandyism and aestheticism. The fact that I had a dream last night about searching for a full-length oil painting of arch-Aesthete Harold Acton encouraged me to give the question some thought today.

            Dandyism and Aestheticism are both personified in the public mind no more so than in the person of Oscar Wilde. By the time Wilde had first found fame, “dandy” had become an inconsequential term, mostly used dismissively and in its most colloquial sense to mean a man obsessed with the triviality of clothing and possessed of a flippant and unserious attitude. It was as a great aesthete that Wilde first won renown – by the time he had left Oxford he had gained notoriety for cooly remarking that he was trying to live up to his China, and the image of the towering Wilde in silk stockings and knee-breeches, mincing down the street clutching a sunflower, was a favorite of caricaturists on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilde’s aestheticism, inspired by his two professors, Walter Pater (who had a Romantic idea about the sublimity of art and said that one’s life should “burn with a hard, gem-like flame,”) and John Ruskin (who believed in the moral and spiritual force of art,) was so well known and easily-lampooned that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the operetta Patience satirizing the aesthetic movement, with broadly-drawn characters based on Wilde and James McNeill Whistler.

            The incredible success of Patience in England led to the play’s producer hiring Wilde to go on an extensive lecture tour of America in advance of its stateside opening. The audiences went mad for Oscar Wilde, the famous aesthete, with his velvet clothes, mellifluous voice, and purple musings. Wilde lectured on the importance of beauty – on beauty being an end in itself, life’s ultimate goal, in anything from speech to wardrobe to home décor. Some of the listeners ate his philosophy up with a beautifully-wrought spoon, but most of them found his pontifications more than a little ridiculous. At Harvard a group of undergraduates entered the hall in mid-lecture dressed as they had imagined Wilde to be, and sauntered to their front-row seats, nose in air. At another University, an even crueler gang of kids put ill-fitting evening clothes on a black vagrant and paid him to dance up the aisle swinging a bouquet of lilies. In both instances, Wilde confounded them by appearing in immaculate evening dress rather than the neo-Renaissance garb they had expected, brushing their insults off like lint.

            I think that Wilde, who knew better than anybody the pitfalls of being earnest, realized that he couldn’t be an aesthete with too straight a face. The majority of the public couldn’t stand for too much rhapsodizing without a modicum of irony – and that’s when Wilde truly combined the aesthete and the dandy. The dandy’s insouciant charm and unflappability were powerful when wedded to the aesthete’s glorifying mission. If the audience seemed determined to take the aesthete’s artistic prescriptions with a grain of salt, the dandy would force it all down with a lump of sugar served with a cheeky wink. Wilde was a dandy by nature, and an aesthete at least partly by education. He needed to leaven the seriousness of aestheticism with the wit of the dandy, something his professors, in their noble earnestness, had never managed to do.

            The most important distinction between Dandyism and Aestheticism, however, isn’t simply their level of seriousness – it is, in fact, something much more fundamental than that. Aestheticism is a philosophy, a guiding belief chosen, if not always rationally, then at least intentionally. The follower of aestheticism has studied his subject and come to the conclusion that art is paramount in life and beauty paramount in art. Dandyism, on the other hand, is far closer to a compulsion than it is a philosophy. It is an obsession, more often than not irrational, and occasionally bordering on a psychological disorder. The true dandy cannot behave any other way. Like homosexuality, dandyism is rarely a choice and its practitioners must live by its dictates or be doomed to a life of hypocrisy, unhappiness, and the secret suffering of the underdeveloped and unfulfilled, to say nothing of cargo shorts, Croc shoes, and baseball caps. A dandy unable to be a dandy would atrophy and die, which is exactly why one sees dandyism appearing in the most unlikely of places and in the most difficult of circumstances, defeating capricious circumstance – it cannot be easily squelched.

            So much for the difference between dandyism and aestheticism; is there a relationship? Absolutely. And Wilde is, once again the man who was its most elegant embodiment. Put succinctly, one doesn’t have to be a dandy in order to be an aesthete and vice-versa. But aestheticism seems to be the perfect philosophy for someone afflicted with dandyism, and dandyism, considered as an innate compulsion, seems to be a natural encourager of aestheticism.

            Wilde wasn’t the only dandy-aesthete. The Twentieth Century’s greatest champion of Aestheticism was also an accomplished dandy, particularly when he was young. Harold Acton opens his famous Memoirs of an Aesthete with a defiant proclamation:
“Half of my friends disapprove of the title I have chosen for this book without having read it. ‘What! an aesthete? One of those scruffy long-haired fellows in peculiar garb, lisping about art for art’s sake? No, no. You’ll prejudice all your readers in advance. Old Oscar screwed the last nail in the aesthete’s coffin’…
Though I shiver and cough I refuse to be a pessimist. We had a culture which war has interrupted, and it was nourished by a few people like myself, citizens of the world. During the war we were forced into hibernation. Many of us are hibernating still.
We citizens of the world are neither famous nor spectacular. But there is a slow fire burning within us, and it is time for our latent energies to swell forth anew. It is time for us to reassert ourselves. And it is our duty to remind our fellow creatures of what they are fast forgetting, that true culture is universal…
Without apologies then, and without being a laudatory temporis Actoni, let me glory in the name of aesthete, for I am one in the proper sense of that word. Let me fling it in the teeth of the Philistines!”
I'll leave you with Acton's impression, when he first came to Oxford and encountered what passed for aestheticism there, a vision not unfamiliar to anyone who’s met a steampunky gothic Morrissey fan clutching a copy of Dorian Gray:
“Lunching with Billy Clonmore, I met what he described as ‘an aesthete’ and was disconcerted.  A pressed fern from the pages of the Yellow Book, his disjointed fragments of drawled conversation were as dull as his jaundiced eyes. Had he taken an active interest in the ‘nineties, I might have excused his jaded mannerism. But what interest he could muster in life was limited to his sickly appearance. Sensing my indifference, if not my antipathy, he showed me, in an offhand conceited way, some etchings he had picked up in Vienna. They were timidly prurient, meretriciously art-and-crafty. My gorge rose, my indignation whetted by the creature’s pretension to taste, and I was goaded to crude rudeness. ‘Your etchings are the messes of a miserable masturbator,’ I told him.
There was already sufficient prejudice against art in England, and I feared that this type – for he was a type – was damaging a cause I cherished. He was sterile to the core. His long hair and his ebony cane only stressed his lack of personality. If others could not bear the sight of him – which was evident as we were walking down the Broad – neither could I. Better the moustache stained with nicotine! Billy said he wasn’t such a bad soul. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much,’ I expostulated, ‘if he were a bad soul, if he had anything to positive as a vice.’ I left Billy’s luncheon bursting with resolutions. I made up my mind that if that eunuch represented Oxford aestheticism something would have to be done about it soon. Now that the war was over, those who loved beauty had a mission, many missions. We should combat ugliness; we should create clarity where there was confusion; we should overcome mass indifference; and we should exterminate false prophets.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Chap: Bohemians

In the latest issue of The Chap, I discuss bohemianism - the ultimate anti-dandyism. Below is a small excerpt.

As the great decadent siècle came to its fin, the influence of the dandies had waned. Oscar’s ignominious tumble down the ladder leading from stars back to gutter had soiled the archetypal aesthete’s velvet reputation – to be an elegant man was to be suspect, to be an elegant artist unconscionable. So it was that a new generation of poetry and paint-brush poseurs had to forge a new fashion which bespoke their anti-establishment attitudes. The green carnation in one’s lapel was old hat sartorial subversion – the new subversion required actual old hats, preferably big floppy ones of Continental provenance.
Into this tightly-laced world leapt the Bohemians with gypsy-inspired bravado. Their de facto suzerain, the painter Augustus John, led the way:
 But now a new kind of exhibitionism was born; in its way, as exact and conscientious as my father’s cult of the clothes-brush; a kind of inverted Dandysim. If my shoes were unpolished, they were specially made to my own design. If I abjured a collar, the black silk scarf that took its place was attached with an antique silver brooch which came from Greece. The velvet additions to my coat were no tailor’s but my own afterthought, nor were my gold earrings heirlooms, for I bought them myself: the hat I wore, of a quality that only age can impart…My abundant hair and virgin beard completed an ensemble which, if harmonious in itself, often failed to recommend me to strangers.