Fine and dandy — the stylish gentleman
Resplendent in a three-piece orange tweed suit and black bowler hat, Richard Merkin studies a self-portrait of himself, whilst languidly leaning on his beloved walking stick. This photograph, published in Esquire in 1972, accompanied an article about well-dressed men of the time, and Merkin, who was professor of painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for over 40 years, was deemed the best representation of chic. To Kate Irwin, co-curator of Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion, Merkin’s status as dandy extraordinaire is left pretty much unchallenged, “Richard Merkin was an exemplary artist/rebel/dandy who placed equal creative emphasis on his painting, illustrations, journalism, and, of course, his style. He resolutely embraced his creative gifts and material obsessions, blurring the presumed divisions between art, life, and sartorial affairs.” The exhibition looks at a variety of unique male style-makers over the past 200 years and makes clear that a complex range of facets are required to be a true dandy – not just a bespoke suit. Irwin, along with co-curator Laurie Brewer, offer their thoughts on this most flamboyant of personalities. There have been several definitions of what it means to be a dandy. How would you describe the archetypal version? Though it is true that the dandy image has evolved into diverse expressions, and popular responses have fluctuated wildly over time, the definition seems to always track back to the extremely neat and buttoned-up figure of George Bryan “Beau” Brummell. The idea of clothes as a manifestation of thoughtful self-construction has remained constant. We propose that the archetypal dandy epitomises the powerful bond between clothing, identity, and creativity. Garbed with intention and at least a hint of provocation, the dandy is forward-thinking and thoroughly artistic. Beau Brummell, considered the first dandy, opens the exhibition. Although he gave the impression of originating from aristocracy, the writer J A Barbey d’Aurevilly commented that Brummell’s greatness was “based on nothing at all”. Was dandyism a way of escaping social class barriers? Brummell did indeed forge a path to the heart of exclusive London society by deploying the emergent craft of tailoring, whose practitioners helped sculpt Brummell’s dashing and artful figure of wit and authority. Brummell’s characteristic restraint became an artistic, nonconformist, intellectual call to arms. We therefore see the dandy’s sometime hurdling of class barriers not as an escape, but as a provocation.
What was so memorable about Richard Merkin’s style? Merkin’s suits were individually patterned and crafted to express his personal vision and originality. His friend, the writer, Tom Wolfe praised this quality, saying, “Even the smallest detail, a Turkish cigarette, a glove, a capped-toe shoe, a walking stick – and no artist on this earth has ever had a more exquisite eye for cigarettes, gloves, shoes and walking-sticks, not to mention tennis collars, center/ridge Panamas and boutonnières – becomes a discreet element of design.” Craftsmanship is key to many of the garments on display, including the riding jacket and suit worn by the pioneer explorer and hot air balloonist William Fitzhugh Whitehouse Jr, and the four-piece suit worn by the actor and writer Michael Strange. Would you agree that such standards are considered luxurious now, rather than a given? It seems that we are just emerging from an era in which designer brands served as the definition of luxury. Now we are back to favouring craftsmanship, artistry, and the quality of materials as the core of elegance, not extravagance – an important distinction. We see the dandy’s pursuit of bespoke clothing as parallel to the slow food movement, as an effort in part to slow time – to appreciate the attention required in crafting the handmade suit, to admire its finer points, to see it as part of a living history. Would you say that self-absorption is a significant element to being a dandy? Particularly given that often they would take much trouble over their appearance whilst pretending to be indifferent! What some have described as the dandy’s overriding self-absorption is in fact a strong manifestation of the enduring bond between identity, creativity, and self-presentation. Moving beyond the expected surface treatment of the dandy’s fashion, we have sought to mine his material world to reposition him as a conscientious character. He is anything but indifferent! Who is your favourite menswear designer? LB: I continue to be enthralled with Rick Owens. His most recent menswear collection offers a distinct vision for a modern Romantic dandy. KI: I have a weakness for the designs of Junya Watanabe. His central and studied use of patchwork, referring to boro (Japanese folk garments of mended and patched indigo-dyed cotton), embeds the clothes with history and emotion even before they enter the wardrobes of would-be clients. By Allie Biswas Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion is on view at RISD from April 28 until August 18, 2013
Exhibition exploring the figure of the dandy at the RISD Museum, April 2013.