As part of Bas Bleu’s 2017 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Our October 2017 Book a Month selection, Whom the Gods Love by Kate Ross, stars Regency-era dandy Julian Kestrel as an amateur sleuth charged with investigating the murder of a handsome, charming, and successful “golden boy” of Victorian London’s social scene. As the Regency dandy is a familiar figure to fans of historical fiction, we thought you’d be interested in learning more about that fine fellow…and his surprising role in English society and politics. For help, we turned to our friends at Felony & Mayhem, publishers of “the best in intelligent mystery fiction.” Here’s what they had to say:
The Regency Dandy: A Surprisingly Political Figure
“I would just like to say that it is my conviction
That longer hair and other flamboyant affectations
Of appearance are nothing more than the male’s emergence
From his drab camouflage into the gaudy plumage
That is the birthright of his sex.
“There is a peculiar notion that elegant plumage
And fine feathers are not proper for the male.
But actually, that is the way things are
In most species.”
The lyrics are from Hair, and while Julian Kestrel’s dandified pals might have turned up their elegant noses at the dirty hippies, they’d have some trouble quarreling with the sentiment: Dandyism, in one form or another was hardly invented in the 1960s, nor was it new in Kestrel’s day. Men “excessively” concerned with their appearance had been a feature in literature since at least the fifteenth century, though rarely in a flattering light: Restoration comedy, in particular, was not kind to “fops” or “popinjays,” typically portraying them as shriekingly effeminate drama-queens given to vicious gossip and social-climbing.
By the time the Regency period rolled around, in the early nineteenth century, dandyism (as it became known) had taken a different tack. The sartorial extravagance of previous generations—the elaborately curled wigs, the high-heeled shoes, the gold-embroidered waistcoats, the full-skirted jackets and ruffled cuffs—were now considered rather tacky, evidence of a fellow’s trying just a bit too hard. A true dandy, instead, aspired to a kind of undetectable perfection, a style that demanded the finest materials and most meticulous craftsmanship, all in the service of an appearance of restraint and modesty. Think of it this way: The fops dressed like newly rich rock stars, flashing their bling and telegraphing their wealth with every swish of their gaudy, oversized silk handkerchiefs. The dandies, by contrast, dressed like old money, in impeccable tailoring that showcased the wearer’s refinement by, ironically, never calling attention to itself.
But they certainly hadn’t given up social climbing. Dandyism, after all, was associated with the well-heeled gentlemen who were close to the Prince Regent. Of these, perhaps the dandiest was George “Beau” Brummel: Though he began as a very junior officer in the Prince’s private regiment, a combination of his wit and his exquisitely understated style captivated the future King George IV, and made Brummel both the arbiter of men’s fashion and a person of great influence in court circles. He would hold onto both of these positions for an impressive twenty years or so, losing them only when an ill-advised comment on the Prince’s weight cost him…pretty much everything. Brummel would eventually flee to Europe to escape debtors’ prison, and died, a syphilitic pauper, in an insane asylum. (Remember this story next time you are tempted to make a snarky remark about a chubby friend’s fondness for French fries.)
While the Prince himself was rather too stout to carry off the tight trousers and slim-fit jackets that were hallmarks of the dandy’s dress, he did lend them the royal imprimatur. This association—royalty + discreet perfection—was far from accidental. Dandyism, in all its permutations, had always been a rich man’s game. (Brummel once estimated that a gentleman could dress decently— “with tolerable economy” —for the equivalent of about $70,000 a year, and the fops’ powdered wigs certainly didn’t come cheap.) But with the ascendance, at the tail end of the eighteenth century, of the Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent) it became an explicitly political one. For the Prince, the big event of the period may have been his own installation as Regent (standing in for his incapacitated papa) but for the rest of the world, the American Revolution and the French Revolution packed a bit more punch. And the Revolutions’ cries of egalitarianism were a clear threat not only to the monarchy—in England as elsewhere—but also to the class system that made life so pleasant for the dandies and, incidentally, allowed them to spend $70,000 a year on beautifully laundered cravats. The dandies’ aesthetic—the gloves of softest leather, trousers tailored to the quarter-inch, waistcoats of the finest, near-invisible brocade—made it very clear that the wearer was a man of impeccable taste, and a man moreover so confident of the superiority of his taste that he had no need to proclaim it above a whisper. Their clothes marked the dandies as nature’s aristocrats, chosen—like the Prince—to be placed above the rest of vulgar society. The very perfection of their attire served as rebuke to the ludicrous notion that all men are created equal.