Jay snapped me sans overcoat but otherwise suited up for winter as I swanned around summery Coffs, an unofficial ambassador of Melbourne moda bringing a soupçon of Collins street chic to Harbour drive.
The only unfashionable touch by your Melbourne Flâneur’s über-æsthetic lights: the muzzle (or ‘chin-sling’, as I call it) in my south paw, a fad which no one will ever convince me is elegant—even the flower-bedizened variety I reluctantly port.
Even when forced to hide my mug behind a mask, dear readers, the dandy in me indomitably prevails, and I must bring a touch of the æsthetic even to this despised item of bourgeois uniformity.
But whether I am airing my dial or have my mug camouflaged behind a floral mask, it seems I am instantly recognized in these parts. Even at the bus stop, preparing to decamp from Coffs to Bellingen, I was recognized by someone I had never seen in my life.
‘You’re going to Bellingen, aren’t you?’ the guy asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, somewhat surprised. Perhaps, I thought, the bowtie I was wearing gave me away as the type of person who would be waiting for the bus to Bello.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen you there,’ he said.
‘It must have been a long time ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been there in five years.’
He seemed doubtful about that claim, as if it were more likely that he had last seen me only five weeks ago.
The encounter puzzled me until I alighted in Bello. Hardly had I squared away my luggage at the Diggers Tavern and taken my first fashionable flânerie in æons up one side of Hyde street, the Champs-Élysées of Bellingen, and down the other before I was recognized by John Ross, owner of the Alternatives Bookshop, who greeted me with the words: ‘We were just talking about you.’
That is a phrase I have heard repeated continuously. Five years may have passed, but my ‘celebrity’ in Bellingen (as John called it, introducing me to two passers-by) as its most dandistic resident remained undimmed by half a decade’s absence. Indeed, on Sunday, as I lounged on the grassy bank of the Bellinger River, relishing the sun (a dominical ritual of confirmed Bellingenites), two friends sitting at some distance and recognizing a jaunty Fedora worn rakishly askew inquired of their companions if it could be me and, more to the point, if they had lived in Bellingen long enough ‘to know who Dean is.’
I’ve become a fabled creature here, which I didn’t expect. If you have lived in Bello in the years ‘A.D.’ (‘After Dean’), you have clearly missed a spectacle as dazzling and memorable (in the annals of fashion, at least) as the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
I used to have a lady friend here, a cute little sculptress who lived up the hill in Dorrigo and who would come down to Bello on a Sunday to work a shift at the former Lodge 241 café. It never ceased to amuse her how, on our dates or after-work flâneries, we were forced to stop every few metres in our progress along Hyde street to acknowledge the friendly salutations of the most diverse people.
To her, I seemed to know everyone in town, but to me, it felt more like everyone knew me—even the people I didn’t know.
Conspicuous as I was in my day, I thought that when I departed Bello for Melbourne five years ago, I would be promptly forgotten. But it was I who had forgotten the curious phenomenon of ‘Bello time’, whereby a man can go away for five years and be greeted warmly by half the town as if the last time he had been seen in these parts was last week.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I am certainly not the only literary man to have passed a season or two in this town, and certainly not the most internationally celebrated, Peter Carey having lived in Bellingen and having set the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) in this landscape.
Moreover, journalist George Negus and I occasionally shared co-working space at ‘my office’, the Hyde, and one of the last times I imbibed a long black there before checking out, on a day when the café was particularly bondé de gens, Mr. Negus and I were forced to sit coude-à-coude at the counter and cement the distant intimacy of our long nodding acquaintance with some polite pleasantries about the political nouvelles du jour, that mustachioed gent never suspecting the local literary celebrity he was rubbing his grizzled elbow against.
I kid, of course.
But like all jests, there’s a zesty grain of truth in the observation that if these two literary gentlemen have more conspicuous clout in the world of letters than your presumptuous little flâneur, in the public imaginary of Bellingen, at least, with the rigorous rectitude and correctness of my dress, I have always fitted the image of an homme de lettres more thoroughly than my more famous colleagues—for all my friends and acquaintances here know that the hygiene of my deportment reflects the intellectual hygiene of a man who makes the most exquisite discriminations with words.
But I find myself in an odd—even an embarrassing—position, overwhelmed by the well-wishing of people who have never forgotten me and never, it seems, ceased to think well of me in my absence.
All the time I lived here, people predicted an imminent removal to Melbourne for me, telling me that, with my sens inné de la mode, I was meant more for Collins street than for Church street, but I think I defied even the most prevoyant forecast about that imminent departure date by staying nearly two and a half years in Bello.
When I did, finally, satisfy the prophecy which had attended me from the first and vamoosed to Victoria, it was with the deeply regretted sense that this beloved landscape had, indeed, been eventually exhausted for me as a source of flâneuristic exploit—particularly as regards the flâneur’s addictive habitude of æsthetically investigating the women of the cities and towns he prowls through.
The dandy is always seeking to crystallize his image, to make his outward appearance thoroughly congruent and consubstantial with his inward self, and in Melbourne, it’s true, I seemed to find and set in perfect place the last pieces of the puzzle to my character which I had been searching for in landscapes as various as the Gold Coast, Paris, and even Bellingen.
I will always be, first and foremost, a Parisian, proud citoyen of the first city of modernity, and hence of modernity’s most decadent product, fashion. But if I have integrated the high polish of the dandistic Parisian flâneur with a life spent wandering the streets of this benighted antipodean isle’s provincial capital of fashion, such that I have become a Melbourne flâneur, it is fair to say that without a couple of years of my life spent squinting still more tightly, trying to disengage and draw forth, like a fabulous perfume, the flâneuristic romance of marvellous novelty from Bellingen’s streets through half-closed lids, I would not have been able to see, as a living reality, a fragrant atmosphere which thoroughly surrounds and suckles me, the poetic Parisian substrate to Melbourne’s pedestrian actuality.
In other words, in Bellingen too (which I have occasionally described to the uninitiated as being like the whole of Melbourne folded up into two short streets) I found the lost quality of Parisian romance, of marvellous novelty, and in some sense the narrow circuit I traced for more than two years up and down Hyde and Church streets prepared me, as no place since Paris had, for the assiduous literary oisiveté of wandering the streets of Melbourne, on the perennial trail for tails and tales.
In fine, I think that, unacknowledged as my literary genius may be by the wider world as compared with Bellingen’s more famous scrivenly denizens both past and present, if I hold a special affection nei cuori dei Bellingeni, it is perhaps because they sense that, fitting the bill of an homme de lettres more perfectly, as one who uses words with the precision of a camera, I have seen the secret essence in this town, in real scenes set in its streets, and have recorded that invisible, fragrant essence which makes this town such a special place.
My last book, Follow Me, My Lovely…, was set here, the history of a night and a morning when I navigated a gorgeous Norwegian tourist I picked up at the backpackers through a flurried flânerie of streets and scenes, and my next novel is also set in the same streets, where the ghost of the former girl—(and of others, bien entendu)—lingers over the marvellous novelty of my romance with another.
In my last post, datelined Wagga, I wrote that I was coming to the end of the second draft of that novel, and there was a moment, in my assiduous painting and repainting of the scene, set in the little park in front of the Bellingen library, where I and that other began a slow escalation of each other which would lead, inevitably, to a transcendent experience in the bedroom, when I felt again the palpability not merely of her body, but of the place and the hour.
On Sunday, not a block west of the library, I beheld her face—a face I had striven through five years to hold firm in my mind, and which I had believed I would never see again—and her neat little body, that body I had held tenderly in the park.
There she was, at some short distance from me, dear readers, at a tantalizing inconjunction of space and time which made it possible for us both to pretend that we had not seen each other, or that, seeing each other, we did not recognize each other. But I know she knew me at a glance, despite the obfuscating bowtie (a foppery I didn’t port in those days), just as I knew her at a glance, swaddled in the faux-fur collar of her velour jacket.
Oui, there she was, one of the feminine ‘Elect’, one of that modest corpus of dames who have undressed your Melbourne Flâneur, who have divested him of his fashionable armour and have laid him out in state, and who have had the dubious honour of beholding the holiest of holies behind that implacable front.
I’ve said that one of the few things which sustained me through our extended Melbourne lockdown was the ability, in concentrating on this novel, to escape the limited vision of the restricted present, and take flâneries through my memories of Bellingen, repainting with precision the Memorial Hall, the walk across Lavenders Bridge and up the path above the skate park, No. 5 Church Street, and Church street itself before the camphor laurels had been removed and replaced.
But when I saw my palpable paramour’s face once again, slightly longer and narrower than I remembered it, she who had led me, arm-in-arm, on months of painstaking promenade through my memories of the streets of Bellingen as perhaps the Eternal Feminine essence of the place, consubstantial with it—for it was her even more than here that I have been trying, through five years, to paint perfectly with words—I saw in her face the slight, painterly distortion, the fault of perspective I had made in my painting of the place.
That slight lengthening and narrowing of her actual visage (as compared to my lovingly beheld memory of it) was like all the slight displacements I have discovered in re-walking these streets I have loved and written lovingly about.
The streetlight in Short Street lane is white, not yellow as I remember it, and the strangler fig under which we exchanged our first kisses ‘feels’ further down the lane, towards Church street, than I have pictured it—even with assiduous referral to Google Maps to aid and orient me.
Most significantly, it was not until I sat on the bank of the river on Sunday afternoon, remembering all the women with whom I had passed a tender moment on that spot, that I realized, for all my concentration on precisely rendering the actuality of the place, how much the palpable, experienced memory of pleasure in Bellingen—how much I used to enjoy sitting on that riverbank, whether alone or in company—has lain buried, sleeping deeply in my unconscious for five years.
Through all my restless movement through places and scenes—not just in Melbourne, but in all the towns and cities my flâneries have taken me to—the memory of the place where I was, for the longest time in my life, most consistently happy has lain buried and is, perhaps, unpaintable, as closely as one might approximate the essence of it.
I recall a quote by M. Degas, who says:
‘C’est très bien de copier ce qu’on voit, c’est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire. C’est une transformation pendant laquelle l’ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c’est-à-dire le nécessaire. … Voilà pourquoi les tableaux faits de cette façon, par un homme ayant une mémoire cultivée, connaissant les maîtres et son métier, sont presque toujours des œuvres remarquables.’
‘It’s all very well to copy what you can see, but it’s even better to draw what you can no longer see, except in memory. A transformation is worked upon the base material of actuality in which genius collaborates with recollection. You only reproduce what has struck you, which is to say, that which is essential to the image. … That is why paintings made in such a manner by a man with a cultivated memory, one who knows both the Old Masters and his trade, are almost always remarkable works.’
—Edgar Degas (my translation)
Follow Me, My Lovely…, written in this landscape, while I still had immediate visual access to every point in the parcours, while I could still see and measure the relative distances between every spot through which I had escalated the Norwegian in our nine-hour flânerie around Bellingen, has a very different quality and character to the one this next novel, Sentimental Journey, will have.
It’s a book I began writing almost immediately after I left Bello five years ago, and being reliant on my memories of the place, and of the woman, slight distortions and displacements—those qualities that M. Degas calls ‘remarkable’—have crept into my rendition of Bellingen, such that, between the essential traits of the image—and even within them—an imaginative collaboration of genius with memory has inadvertently occurred.
I suspect that, at the deepest level, the reason why the good burghers of Bello hold me in a regard I feel I have hardly earned is that they sense, despite my punishing exactitude, despite my dandistic subscription to absolute, rigorous perfection in everything—the sincerity of my dedication to my art which flows out from it through all my life—before reality I fail to get it ‘quite right’—and in that tiny failure, that loophole where the genius of imagination intersects with a rigorously cultivated memory of the place, the inestimable ‘essence of Bellingen’ emerges in my writing about my remembered experiences here.
Other, more celebrated men of letters may have written about this place, but I think i Bellingeni know that their presumptuous little flâneur has observed and absorbed the essence of the living reality of this place, and in his Parisian hallucination of it, will one day present a startling snapshot of the town in tableau at a moment of its most recent history.
I’ve observed elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur the intimate (though not obvious) relation between the writer and the dandy, between the man of letters who precisely crafts his persona through the stylish arrangement of words and the man of fashion who precisely crafts his image through the stylish arrangement of clothes.
While intimate, I say the relationship between these two artists is not obvious because, on the one hand, words and images are diametrically opposed, with a genius in the literary field rarely transferring to the visual (and vice versa), and because, on the other hand, there is simply nothing obvious about the dandy.
More amorphous, more contradictory, more paradoxical even than the woman, the dandy is a circle impossible to square, and no writer on the philosophy of fashion has yet or ever will define the full economy of his androgynous yet über-masculine soul.
The abiding difficulty in defining the dandy is that these men who so scrupulously define the rules of fashion for other men are always the exception to the rule. That is perhaps the only definite thing we can say about them.
And one of their chief paradoxes is that they strive with a supermanly effort to appear absolutely effortless. This is like the writer whose finished work does not reveal the sweat of labour, the enormous volume of words written and culled behind the final, perfect selection and arrangement.
Laziness (or at least its scrupulously maintained appearance) is both a charge leveled at the dandy and the ultimate æsthetic end that he aspires to. The same charge is often leveled at writers: our labour, despite being a manual handicraft, is almost purely mental, and we are often accused (not unfairly) of paresse by the brawny menials who do not imagine that a man can sweat in his study from the labour of lifting and laying the bricks of words, arranging them in vast cathedrals of thought.
‘L’arte che nasconde l’arte’—‘the art that conceals art’: this was the pre-eminent virtue of sprezzatura that il Signor Castiglione ascribed to his ideal courtier, and the dandy, as the democratic gentleman descended from the Renaissance nobleman of Castiglione’s time, shares with the writer both the desire and the necessity to hide his pains of effort off-stage. His performance is entirely a rehearsal. Only the finished capolavoro goes before him, trundling onto stage like the Trojan Horse, dead and done, but not empty of the animating spirit which will take the agape spectators by storm.
Thus, as diametrically as these two arts are opposed to one another, it is no surprise that the one labour (other than the narcissistic cultivation of himself) that is fit to cause the dandy to turn up his French cuffs and get down to it is the work of writing. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda write in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989): ‘… [I]f the dandy is æsthetic and self-concerned, his natural affiliation with professions is only with the poet, the artist, or the writer.’
It’s a perfect profession for a man whose ultimate badge of virtue is to be accused of the social vice of dilettantisme: let’s face it, most jokers who call themselves writers are lazy dilettantes who never publish a word. The boulot takes place so deeply undercover that one may safely maintain one’s front before society as an unredeemable wastrel indefinitely.
M. Proust, a spy in the houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and, by his own unstinting self-recriminations, the laziest man to ever write a novel, got away with this deception for years before his cover as a social butterfly was blown.
So you see, dear readers, abstruse as my connection between the man of words and the man of (self-)images is, it is not sans raison. The abstruseness owes to the indefinable paradoxicality of the dandy who, despite being as defined and definite in his image as the greatest writers are in the words they ultimately choose to represent them, is haloed in an aura which takes nothing away from the high—the highest possible—resolution of his image.
Which leads me to the speculation as to whether there are dandies among film directors. If the dandy is so deeply allied with an artist who is his opposite number in discipline, wouldn’t it stand to better reason to seek him among other men of images?
The contemporary portmanteau of the ‘writer-director’ would lead us to suppose that a reconciliation between les hommes de lettres and les hommes du cinéma exists, but although it is fashionable to speak of the writer-director as the ‘auteur’ of his film, one who wields the ‘caméra-stylo’, we are not comparing apples to apples when we compare these two types of authorial control.
In my last post, I talked about Alain Robbe-Grillet, almost the only novelist to enjoy a second career as a film director. M. Robbe-Grillet expresses the basic temperamental distinction between a writer and a director, for although writers can be extroverted and directors introverted, I would argue (and I think M. Robbe-Grillet tacitly agrees) that the nature of writing is basically introverted, and the nature of film directing is basically extroverted.
This is because one is a solitudinous occupation where authorial control is exercised directly over material and form, and the other is inescapably a social occupation where control is exercised indirectly over people and objects, to whom the various aspects of material and form are delegated.
As M. Robbe-Grillet expresses it: ‘… If I have problems [as a novelist], I have them with myself. Shooting a film is a communal labour, and if I have any problems, I have them not only with myself, but with the actors, with the crew, with the sun, with… the real world.
‘So, in my first film, L’Immortelle , for example, I attempted to constrain all this in order to regain some of the solitude of the writer. I realized very quickly that this was absurd, and in the film I eventually made, I welcomed all these elements: whatever the actors wanted to do, whatever the crew wanted to do, whatever the sun wanted to do, I accepted it.’
This is perhaps the chief reason why the dandy, the man of (self-)images, is deeply allied to the writer but, to my mind at least, almost impossible to find among the ranks of other men of images whose work is pseudo-literary. A director, even if he writes his own film, is less a writer by constitution than a conductor: his art is co-ordinating others in the achievement of a coherent vision.
The dandy is the absolute outlier among men. No type of man is more extreme. Co-operation, co-ordination, collaboration are not among his skills or his interests. A small clique of men inevitably gather around the dandy as around the director, but he publicly tolerates them and privately despises them, for the dandy transcends the primitive hierarchies into which men, both alpha and beta, ridiculously organize themselves. He is not interested in setting trends as a leader of fashion, but fashion inevitably follows him because it—and people—are craven.
Even alpha males.
To wit, see George IV, first among followers of Mr. Brummell.
Like the writer who exercises direct control upon material and form, the dandy exerts direct and imperious control upon the form of himself and the materials he accoutres himself in. It would be as ridiculous for a writer to shape his vision by a committee of lesser peers as a dandy to shape his vision of himself. Both are rugged individualists.
The temperamental predisposition towards introversion, towards narcissistic self-regard and an art that one can directly control, rather than extroversion and an art that one ‘manages’ by social interaction, would explain why one finds dandies among writers but not, it seems, among directors. As interior designer Nicky Haslam puts it: ‘It seems clear that the dyed-in-the-wool dandy—as opposed to the merely dandified, the “nattily dressed”—is, au fond, an introvert.’
Three things would seem, to my mind, to define the dandy-as-director, and I can’t find an exemplar who satisfies my three criteria conclusively. A predisposition to introversion is the first. An iron will to total æsthetic control similar to that displayed by the most ruthless writer is the second. And third is what we know the dandy by: an obsessive love of men’s clothes.
Let’s take the last first, for it is the most difficult criterion to satisfy, and the one, I think, where all the possible contenders I will name appear to fall down.
Our authority on this rare man’s pathological love of fashion is Thomas Carlyle, who, in Sartor Resartus (1833-4), provides the best working definition of the dandy at the birth of the movement. The dandy, according to Mr. Carlyle, is ‘a man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that as others dress to live, he lives to dress.’
We see at once that this primary occupation does not interfere substantially with the less taxing pursuits of the leisured intellectual gent, such as penning the odd verse in idle minutes between social engagements which put this heroic peacock on the stage of life. Indeed, quite the contrary: for as every tradesman must have his uniform, the ensemble of jacket, trousers and waistcoat is as much the uniform of the man who manipulates his pen in elegant endeavours as the businessman who operates it in pragmatic and profitable ones.
Wearing the suit, the uniform of the dandy, therefore, does not interfere, as a primary vocation, with the avocation of the writer. It need not necessarily interfere with that of the film director, either, but I cannot find a man among men of film who consecrates his life above all to being elegant in every breath of his life, whether on location in the dark heart of Africa or on a Hollywood soundstage.
The uniform of the film director, stereotypically, is the one given us by Cecil B. DeMille in his conquering youth. It is the flat cap (perhaps worn backwards at times in a democratic gesture towards one’s cameraman, who has his eye forever pressed to the viewfinder on our behalf), tweeds, jodhpurs and riding boots—maybe even the extravagant detail of a riding crop.
The ridiculous anachronism of attempting to look like an English country gentleman on a blazing Hollywood backlot is eminently dandistic, but it falls more in Mr. Haslam’s category of being ‘dandified’ and ‘nattily dressed’ than looking good at every instant for some slavish, private religious purpose.
But I don’t use the words ‘extravagant detail’ lightly in reference to the riding crop. Extravagant details whose practical purpose are obscure define the whole uniform outlined above. One no more knows who or what the director plans to whip with the anachronistic crop than what he plans to ride with his anachronistic jodhpurs and boots.
Extravagant details whose practical function as working uniform are novel, innovative, and even obscure define the dandy, and we see examples of these extravagant details in the working uniforms of directors who are certainly dandified if not actual dandies.
For example, the most dandified director in the world today has to be David Lynch. He has such a recognizable personal style that it appears even in his films—in the proxies who stand in for him, like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986). The eccentric detail of the collar button done up sans cravate which Mr. Lynch affects at times transcends the nerdish faux pas of fashion it would be for most other men because the eccentricity belies a practical purpose which is obscure to the rest of us.
According to Mr. Lynch, he hates the feel of wind on his collar bone, and hence he buttons his shirts up to choking point—a personal eccentricity he bequeaths to any character in his films who stands in for him.
But the mania for a warm chest goes even further than that. So high-strung is Mr. Lynch that in his youth he affected the doubly eccentric and dandyish detail of wearing not one but three neckties as a foulard to keep his sensitive collar bone warm.
The image of a man wearing triple neckties may be absurd so that we wonder if he is the victim or the bold setter of some obscure fashion which has bypassed us, but key to understanding the dandy’s sway over other men is the knowledge that all his novel and innovative sartorial choices stem from some practical consideration of comfort which is personal to him.
Just as Gianni Agnelli—a genuine dandy—affected the eccentric habitude of wearing his wristwatch over his sleeve—(a fashion faux pas so thunderingly obtuse that it boldly doubled as a brilliant time and motion innovation for the busy head of Fiat to affect)—the uniquely personal considerations of comfort that dandies make only become stale form when they are cravenly imitated by men, clueless about fashion, who take their personal eccentricities as general edicts.
As far as I know, the triple necktie as foulard has not caught on. That unique eccentricity in personal style as well as Mr. Lynch’s high-strung nature might qualify him as the closest contender for a dandy among living directors that I know of—for one cannot be a dandy without being as high-strung and neurotic as a thoroughbred.
But even though nowadays he affects the black suit, white shirt and black tie of Alfred Hitchcock as his unvarying uniform, I do not know that Mr. Lynch anymore than Mr. Hitchcock is slavishly devoted to the suit as high art.
In my post “A writer’s style”, I quoted approvingly the opinion of Messrs. Martin and Koda that a man’s dress signifies his ‘operational identity’: as men, we are our professional rôles, and one of our highest masculine virtues is to make who we are indistinguishable from what we do. A man is the uniform he wears in life.
Of all directors, Mr. Hitchcock is the one who best worked out an operational identity for himself early on, one which involved the democratic uniform of the professional man, the suit. The funereal combination of black suit, white shirt and black tie which Mr. Hitchcock typically affected not merely consolidated his operational identity as head man on-set, but the operational identity of his lugubrious public persona—which was as much a put-on as his suit.
This was an operational necessity for as neurotic an introvert as Mr. Hitchcock. For as much as he was a commanding Leo, one of that extravagant, limelight-loving breed fit to dominate a film set, one derives two abiding impressions from reading the early pages of John Russell Taylor’s Hitch (1978) and Patrick MacGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light (2004).
The first is that the shy, lonely young Hitchcock might not have gotten his chance to direct had he not put on the extroverted front of continually putting himself forward with feigned confidence for jobs he had no prior experience at. The second is that, in the early days of his English career, his association with a certain type of film we now associate with his name and image was more a product of chance than inward inclination towards darkness.
There’s almost nothing in Mr. Hitchcock’s background to suggest that he would become, as Jean-Luc Godard called him, the only poète maudit to achieve commercial success in his own lifetime. The early output of the future Master of Suspense is more varied than that princely title allows, and his career could have gone in any number of directions if he had not hit on a repeatably bankable formula early on.
And the formula, the poetry of bizarre, nail-biting images in fulgurant succession, is of course a rhyme for that distinctive silhouette which appears as a signature in the corner of each of his films, the portly, soberly-suited trickster. Mr. Hitchcock in his very appearance was the type of film he made. Life, he once complained, typecasts us: according to him, his inward suavity of spirit would have been better suited to the outward shell of Cary Grant.
He had the introverted dandy’s necessity of an extroverted operational identity, a uniform which was distinctive and inimitable, but one which equally commanded respect on the set. The funereal suit and tie ensemble gave Mr. Hitchcock an appearance somewhere between a bank manager and an undertaker, and the implications of sobriety and discretion in that uniform, of honest, well-balanced books, of loved ones precisely and delicately attended to, indicates my second criterion: almost no director exerts as ruthless and singular a control over every detail of his image—at least, as the images of his films are his image in the popular imaginary—than Alfred Hitchcock.
The suit suits him. This symbol of masculine rectitude and rationality, clothes precisely designed by rule and compass, is eminently suitable for a director who emerged from the ranks of production designers, and whose training and only job outside films was in engineering.
As British fashion critic Colin McDowell says in his book The Anatomy of Fashion (2013), ‘The true dandy … sees dress as an expression of highly masculine qualities, such as precision, consideration and respect. … Dandies depend on a rational approach to clothing, relegating all other considerations to making a powerful statement without falling prey to the cardinal sin of ostentation.’
Powerful visual statements, not ostentatious but certainly striking, emerge from the fabric of Mr. Hitchcock’s films, which were always made out of respect and consideration for his audiences. The precision of rational design in the well-cut suit might be seen as an analogy for the way Mr. Hitchcock designed and made his films for people ‘out of whole cloth’, controlling every element with absolute precision, measuring every detail, stitching every shot together to form an ensemble far greater in effect than the sum of its exquisite parts.
David Fincher has described this ruthless authorial control as ‘the iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s style, a sort of overarching échafaudage which protects what’s under it, as a good English suit, for instance, is a kind of armature for the body, repulsing the intemperate English elements. But the iron umbrella of Mr. Hitchcock’s style not only repulses what is external to his creative vision, it also suffocates any spontaneous input from others who are under it.
Even as late as his last film, Family Plot (1976), when he was working with the long-haired, bearded contemporaries of Spielberg and Lucas, young technicians going to work on Mr. Hitchcock’s set were discreetly advised at the commencement that a suit and tie, rather than T-shirt and jeans, would be the de rigueur uniform at all times.
The genteel uniform of the professional man was eminently suitable for Mr. Hitchcock’s ruthlessly regulated, standardized style of filmmaking, which some actors and technicians described as like ‘working in a bank’: Mr. Hitchcock’s phobia for the impromptu had caused him to prepare so well in advance that one could safely start at nine and leave the set each day at six.
But if he had the dandy’s introversion and iron-clad control of details, what lets Mr. Hitchcock out as a dandy, in my view, is that his passion appears to have been for women’s wardrobe rather than for men’s.
Legion are the examples of the exacting requirements he had for his leading ladies’ couture. As resoundingly silent is the record on what he specified for his men. To his eternal credit, Mr. Hitchcock does have what has been justly called ‘the greatest suit of all time’ in one of his films, the famous—and much-abused—grey Kilgour sported by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959). About eleven copies of this suit were required to film the cropduster sequence alone. But it is believed that Mr. Hitchcock, who regarded Mr. Grant as a cut above the usual cattle he had to wrangle on-set and trusted his judgment in most matters implicitly, allowed him a free hand in commissioning the suit from his tailor, Kilgour French and Stanbury of Savile Row.
This is in contrast with the control he exerted over his leading ladies’ deportment. No expense was spared to repeatedly secure the services of Edith Head as ladies’ costume designer on his films. Miss Head reported that, like James Stewart in Vertigo (1958), the gentleman knew what he wanted: perhaps owing to his background in design, Mr. Hitchcock was uncommonly well-informed in matters of women’s fashion and demanded the famous grey suit for Kim Novak despite Miss Head’s protests that grey was not a blonde’s colour and would make her look washed out.
That was precisely the ghostly effect he wanted.
He personally escorted Eva Marie Saint to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and selected her wardrobe for North by Northwest. He also had Christian Dior design Marlene Dietrich’s costumes for Stage Fright (1950). Mr. Hitchcock was fond of quoting the playwright Sardou’s maxim that in drama one should always ‘torture the women’. M. Dior, who was as fastidious about details as Mr. Hitchcock and tended to erect an iron umbrella of his own about the feminine silhouette, would doubtless have concurred with this eternally sage advice.
But while I think there are dandistic elements to Mr. Hitchcock personally, and while his films comport themselves with an idiosyncratic visual style which is dandistic, such that he is often imitated by other directors but never equalled, his predilection for female fashion, which is at irreconcilable odds with masculine style, seems ultimately to disqualify him as a dandy.
His great equal as a visual storyteller, Orson Welles, is even further from the mark than Mr. Hitchcock, though Mr. Welles too has elements of the dandy about him. His affectation of exuberantly-brimmed sombreros and capes—(capes are eminently dandistic)—ought to qualify him on prima facie inspection, but on deeper consideration these are the very things which let him out.
Mr. Welles always reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who is often mistaken for a dandy—and who mistook himself for one. Both are hommes du théâtre, and I think the native extravagance and peacockery of theatre people always counts against them. They evince the kind of ostentation that the true dandy abhors.
There are few cases in cinema of men so pathologically addicted to an art-form that Mr. Welles called ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’ than Orson Welles himself. But despite his addiction, despite the fact that he had cinema in the blood, Mr. Welles was always, first and foremost, a man of the theatre, like Mr. Wilde, with all the vulgar flamboyance, the extroverted ‘larger-than-life-ness’ that no man of the theatre can ever quite get rid of.
It’s always in a stage man’s manner, and you won’t find a single interview with Orson Welles where he is not entertaining, performing for a public audience. It’s charming, but it’s also a straight-up disqualification, for despite his extraordinary vividness, there is no peacockery at all in the genuine dandy: the common mistake that people uninformed on this subject make is to think that because he publicly shines with a special lustre, the dandy, like the man of the stage, is somehow a whore for the spotlight.
Pas du tout.
The dandy’s seductive éclat comes entirely from within. As Philip Mann writes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), ‘… [J]ust as the dandy’s suit is glamorous and his melancholy sombre, so his suit is sombre and his melancholy glamorous.’ The dandy thus burns with a dark, self-consuming light, like a white dwarf.
Mr. Welles’ egotistical extroversion under a veneer of false modesty lets him out. For the same reason, Charles Chaplin is not really a dandy—although his childhood in Dickensian poverty is a crucial psychological plank in the nascent pathology of dandyism. Chaplin, in his later life, is said to have developed a mania for shoes—an obsession which all true dandies will recognize as central to the complex, but which is perhaps more acute in someone who went barefoot through the freezing streets of London in childhood.
The Little Tramp is perhaps what we might call an ‘inverted dandy’—particularly the wing-collar specimen of the genus that Mr. Chaplin portrays in City Lights (1931). While the Little Tramp as archetype is always waging a dandistic war of specious respectability against the grinding reality of his poverty, the Tramp of City Lights goes through the most horrendous crucible of attrition in all of Mr. Chaplin’s œuvre, starting off with wing-collar, boutonnière and a rather snappy bow-tie, and ending up collarless, his bowler mortally wounded, his trousers out-at-arse, and altogether looking the most tragic we will ever see him.
But it’s really the post-Tramp Charlot of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957) who reveals Charlie’s soul-deep pretensions towards aristocracy, not merely as a man of the theatre, but as a waif of the working-class. Dandies always emanate from the lower orders, but rarely from as low as the future Sir Charles did.
This is tacit in the example set by the bourgeois social mountaineer Mr. Brummell, who, as Titan of the Regency, could not have shaken the fashionable firmament of his betters if the English class system was not showing, to his canny eye, the first hairline fissures of encroaching democracy. As M. Baudelaire sagely observed, the phenomenon of dandyism is most pronounced in those transitional periods ‘when democracy is not yet all-powerful and aristocracy is tottering and only partially debased.’
Hence, not so many years after Mr. Brummell died in English disgrace and French exile, a nineteenth-century slum-child and music hall entertainer could become one of our monarch’s knights in the twentieth century. And when I look at the foreign royalty which Mr. Chaplin, with his gorgeous snowy hair and dulcet voice, makes himself over as in A King in New York, I am struck by how much he resembles our present monarch’s despised uncle in old age, the pre-eminent dandy of the twentieth century, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, the man who ended his career as the husband of Mrs. Simpson, the Duke of Windsor.
Of all the immortal Charlot’s creations, Henri Verdoux, the æsthete serial killer who makes a genteel art of dispatching wives and defrauding them of their cash, is the most dandistic. If the Little Tramp was a romanticized version of how Mr. Chaplin perceived himself and the grindingly modest Londonian origins from which he sprang, I think that M. Verdoux represents the romanticized version of Mr. Chaplin’s aspirations for himself as a democratic American gentleman with European pretensions.
He’s the creation, I sense, for whom Mr. Chaplin had the most affection, for M. Verdoux is, as the final shot attests, the Little Tramp’s satanic side. As a man whose dark side also encompasses Machiavellian aspirations towards cash, artistic crimes, and the conquest of women—(all in great quantities, for ‘numbers sanctify’)—I also love M. Verdoux for his consummate dandyism, and I must confess an obsession with Charlie’s outfit in that film. The grey chalk-stripe suit, double-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapel, fulsome, billowing cravat, divine pearl Homburg, gloves and walking stick which Charlot affects in his flâneries comprises the perfect uniform for picking up game grisettes as one treads the streets of Paris.
I intimated above that it’s the striking detail, the incongruous element in the otherwise correct wardrobe, a gesture towards personal comfort, that marks out the dandy. We’d be hard-pressed to award Federico Fellini the dandy laurel, for although often suited on-set, the bullish-looking Maestro never quite wore his suits with sprezzatura—certainly not the sprezzatura that Guido, his perennially harassed and hen-pecked film director proxy, played by the gorgeous and elegant Marcello Mastroianni, wears them with in 8½ (1963).
To the peerless Italian tailoring of tight black suit, white shirt and black tie are bequeathed two characteristically Felliniesque touches—the omnipresent scarf and the cowboy hat. Whether on il Signor Fellini himself or on Guido, that cowboy hat is the crowning touch of oddness that breaks the strict correctness of the classic Italian suit.
Il Fellini’s black cowboy hat was particularly odd, with a low crown and a short, though acutely shaped, brim. One might, at a pinch, have expected his compatriot, Sergio Leone, the gran regista of spaghetti westerns, to sport such a hat, though that gent often went around bareheaded, or with a tweed newsboy’s cap at best. But il Signor Fellini was not a maker of westerns—not even of westerns as far-removed in style from those classic models bearing the Ford insignia as Cinecittà is from Monument Valley—and his cowboy hat, which is almost a more savagely stylized and deformed Fedora, reflects his weird visions of the ordinary.
Indeed, with its connotations of the Rio Grande displaced, as in a dream, to the banks of the Tiber, il Signor Fellini’s incongruous cowboy hat lent that beautiful dreamer the appropriately quixotic touch, on-set, of a high plains drifter tilting, as Guido tilts, at the windmills of his mind.
In The Dandy at Dusk, Philip Mann makes a case for Jean-Pierre Melville, another Euro-fan of the cowboy hat combined with the suit, as a dandy, and though I’m not entirely convinced of the argument, I am prepared to assert that of all the filmmakers I can think of, M. Melville comes probably the closest to my criteria of a dandy director.
He was an écrivain manqué, I think, a writer who, by an immense détournement, found his native literary instinct luckily diverted into the visual. When M. Melville says that editing a film is equal in his passions to writing one, but that he absolutely hates shooting films, you get an intimation of that ruggedly individualistic, utterly ruthless attitude of the writer who loves total control and hates the ‘communal labour’ of filmmaking.
M. Melville is perhaps unique among all directors in that he seemed to realize the dream of solitary, literary filmmaking enunciated by M. Robbe-Grillet: as an independent producer/director, he built his own studio as an adjunct to his home and could work alone in the midnight hours, setting up lights and arranging the set before the arrival of his actors and crew.
He was an introvert, and the Melvillian man of his melancholy, violent dreams is introverted to an hermetic extent—like ‘un tigre dans la jungle… peut-être,’ as M. Melville himself writes at the beginning of Le Samouraï (1967). And being as much a ‘men’s director’ as filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Woody Allen—or even the woman-torturing Alfred Hitchcock—are ‘women’s directors’, filmmakers whose first sympathies lie with their suffering heroines, M. Melville, in his deep love and sympathy for the condition of men in all our melancholy and violence, seems equally to have loved the savagely restricted uniform of the suit with which we elegantly repress and civilize ourselves.
He is perhaps the only director, if Herr Mann’s argument is to be credited, who had the superordinate passion for menswear which is my third condition of dandyism in directors: days after seeing Gone with the Wind in London in 1940, he met Clark Gable at a shirtmaker’s shop in Jermyn street—which star-crossed encounter M. Melville took to be prophetic of his destiny in film. Herr Mann also alleges he once abandoned a film mid-tournage after getting into an argument with an actor about how wide his hat-brim should be.
Given the dandy’s mania for the details of correct masculine deportment, that sounds about the appropriate level of obsession—and expensive, individualistic recklessness—to qualify M. Melville, prima facie, as a dandy director.
Watch any interview with him and you will be struck by a man who is ruthlessly correct in his courtly deportment and demeanour: M. Melville conducts himself en parfait gentleman. The only extravagant touches added to the dark, sober suit which reflects his saturnine nature are the exuberant cream Stetson and the mirrored aviator sunglasses—fetishistic touches of the Americana which decorated M. Melville’s films as much as his person.
There’s a photo in Herr Mann’s book of M. Melville, circa 1960, in a boxy dark grey suit and tie, his ensemble topped with shining Stetson and les trous noirs of his aviator sunglasses, and carrying an elegantly thin briefcase—but no raincoat—through the rainy streets of Paris. Even more than a gangster on his way to a rendez-vous (an eminently appropriate look for an independent producer/director with shady contacts), this incongruous figure briskly whipping along looks like a Texas oilman—a premonition of J. R. Ewing, no less—plopped down in the rue de la Paix.
This américainophilie is de rigueur for a man who, in a supremely dandistic gesture, adopted the surname of the author of Moby Dick as his codename in the French Resistance and never renounced it upon the laying down of arms. As a man who constructs an operative identity which he is ruthlessly prepared to both live and die by, the only profession other than literature for which the dandy is eminently suited is espionage, and M. Melville, the chronicler of gangsters, corrupt cops, con artists and members of the Armée des Ombres, comported himself as an undercover résistant all his life—résistant à tout.
As an operative identity, the codename ‘Melville’ is as much a charmed imperméable in the grey ville de merveilles of Paris as the raincoat he accoutres Alain Delon with in Le Samouraï. It’s perhaps an ironic coincidence that the French Mafia is colloquially known as ‘le Milieu’—literally, ‘the Place’, ‘the Scene’, for M. Melville, like his idealized assassin, seemed to strive to live up to Mr. Brummell’s dictum that the perfect dandy is a man who is never out of place, but blends into his environment, never drawing attention to himself with a mistake of deportment or comportment.
He is so correct as to be invisible.
As Mr. Hitchcock took the dressing of his leading ladies to be a personal duty not to be delegated, M. Melville similarly undertook to be valet to his leading men. ‘I’m very prone to clothes fetishism,’ he once said—surely an understatement for a director who named one of his films—Le Doulos (1962)—after the gangster argot-word for ‘hat-wearer’. ‘[T]he clothing of men plays a decisive rôle in my films, while women’s clothing alas concerns me less. When an actress has to be dressed, an assistant usually takes care of it.’
This candid admission seems to clinch it, but I take Philip Mann’s offering of Jean-Pierre Melville as a dandy director under advisement. It’s a matter I will have to think about more before I offer M. Melville a membership in the club. Doubtless, like Groucho Marx, he wouldn’t take it anyway if it was offered—and if so, that would be the concluding proof of M. Melville’s dandysme;—for we dandies are such rugged individualists that (like the only Marx whose dicta are worth repeating) we would refuse to belong to any club that would have us as a member.
If you can think of any other hommes du cinéma you think might live up to the high bar of being a dandy, dear readers, I would be interested to hear the names of other contenders bandied in the comments below.
Being a Daygamer myself (albeit one who considers himself ‘retired’ from the Game), your Melbourne Flâneur is a very tough cookie to crack: knowing every trick and technique for stopping a stranger in the street, you can’t arrest the flow of my flânerie if I don’t want to stop for you.
But photographer Alfonso Perez de Velasco (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram), ‘loitering with intent’ near the corner of Lonsdale street, caught me on a good day as I sailed confidently down Elizabeth street, and I couldn’t turn down his sincere and complimentary request to snap a portrait of me, the photo you see above.
It’s perhaps too much of a cliché to say that this talented Madrileño now living and working in Melbourne has painted me in a typically Spanish light, with shades of Ribera about me, but I think he’s captured something essential about your sombre, sombrero’d scribe, that blend of light and dark inside a single look which is eminently Goyesque.
With my humour and melancholy, my Machiavellianism and my empathy, I am nothing if not contradictory, and I think Alfonso captures that ambiguity nicely.
I was wearing a black shirt with a grey-and-white floral pattern, dark silver tie, black display kerchief with grey Martini glasses on it (courtesy of Fine And Dandy and Brisbane Hatters), and a dark grey vintage Stetson Whippet to cap the ensemble. The slightly clashing touch of chocolate-coloured scarf and gloves was my only concession to the tardy onset of the Melbourne winter. I had my Dunn & Co. trenchcoat slung casually over my Czechoslovakian officer’s map-case, which serves as a stylish satchel for porting my tablet.
I was everything the well-dressed writer-about-town ought to be.
I wasn’t, as Raymond Chandler says, ‘calling on four million dollars’—(tant pis)—but I was just about to call on Elite Office Machines Co. in Carlton to pick up my freshly serviced Silver Reed typewriter.
So I was feeling O.K. that day.
During lockdown, I had a chance to catch up on some reading, and one of the books that came my way was Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), by Richard Martin and Harold Koda. It was written at the tail end of the ‘Greed is Good’ eighties, so there’s a touch of quaintness about the authors’ commentary: though acknowledging that standards have slipped since the 1960s, Messrs. Martin and Koda have no clue as to how far they will descend in the thirty years up to the present day.
Their thesis is simple yet compelling: ‘We believe that men are knowing in making choices among style options, and that they dress to create or recreate social roles. Both men and women seek to realize roles and identities, but since men’s options in dress would appear to be the more acutely restricted, perhaps selecting a role has assumed more importance for them than it has for women. A man’s role is his operative identity; style choices follow therefrom.’
I like the phrase ‘operative identity’, for it points to the fundamental ‘uniformity’ of men’s style, the basis of almost every garment in the masculine wardrobe in an historical military analogue.
Indeed, Martin and Koda identify twelve such ‘operative identities’ that we men tend to take on as the social rôles by which we choose to be known, and their book is arranged in an ascending hierarchy of these ‘types’, from the ‘Jocks’ and ‘Nerds’ of the title, through the ‘Military Man’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Sportsman’, up to the ‘Businessman’, ‘Man about Town’ and ‘Dandy’.
The argument seems true that, due to the mobility of action that is the masculine prerogative, at a certain point early in a man’s life, he chooses the rôle that he is going to play, the branch of ‘the Services’ he is going to go into.
Is he going to be a soldier? a blue-collar worker? a white-collar worker? a professor? There’s a ‘uniform’ for every métier that men undertake, and even the most récherché uniform, that of a literary dandy like yours truly, is thoroughly—albeit subtly—based in a military antecedent.
Martin and Koda go on to say: ‘Conventional wisdom has it that men dress to be conventional, but those with insight into male dress might hold that men dress to realize dreams, to be themselves through being someone other than themselves. If, as Shakespeare would have it, “apparel oft proclaims the man,” perhaps it is true that it both claims and proclaims him.’
I agree, for not only do we know a man by the uniform he wears, but the key point is that, unlike for the dames, our trade, boulot or profession is our operative identity: a man is the job he does, and in subscribing to the uniform, he subscribes equally to the professional etiquette of the rôle.
We have certain expectations of the cowboy, just as we have certain others of the lawyer, and the man who inhabits the uniform of either trade will seek earnestly to inhabit the professional expectations we have of him.
Indeed, for most men, it is a point of honour that their behaviour and comportment is congruent with the deportment of their life’s rôle.
But is there, you may ask, really a ‘uniform’ for a writer?
Well, Martin and Koda are instructive on this point, for not only is their book liberally seasoned with pictures of men of letters, but it opens with a spread lifted from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Uomo in which a contemporary spin is placed on the ‘looks’ of such literary giants as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, among others, demonstrating that men who spend their lives ‘off the stage of life’, cloistered in their studies, may be equally ‘leaders of fashion’ to other men.
‘Would a businessman care to walk in the shoes of James Joyce?’ Martin and Koda ask. ‘In the intimacy of a clothing decision, he might, signalling an affinity with the writer. … [T]he male chooses a family tree, a heritage, a sense of identity or likeness that is most compelling because it is not enunciated but simply visually implied.’
And indeed, surveying this spread and the other portraits of writers in this book, one sees a subtle uniform ‘visually implied’: the rakish chapeau, the tie—whether straight or bow—which is more alluring than the usual garotted neckwear, the suit of emphatic cut, or of bold stripes or mysterious patterns, the raincoat which is ported quixotically in all weathers.
I have observed elsewhere on this vlog the unusual number of writers who tend to be dandies. Why should we men of letters, cloistered away from celebrity-hungry eyes in our airy towers of intellect, be so passionate about such an ephemeral subject as fashion?
Well, as I said in my post on ‘What is a flâneur?’, there is no better prima facie indication of an orderly mind than the attention to detail that a man pays to his deportment. If a man cannot order the outer world of his person—(or, worse still, declines to do so, for this betrays a manque of strategy in his thinking)—it is doubtful whether he possesses the energies to order his abstract inner world through words.
In his book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (2017), fashion journalist Terry Newman made a close reading of thirty authors and their sartorial style, arguing that the distinction between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ man of letters is not really as invidious as one might think at first glance, with an analogue of the writer’s unique literary style manifesting in the arena of his personal style.
Reversing the lens, is there anything that could be divined about my style as a writer from how I dress?
Well, judging from Alfonso’s pictures, I probably look like the man who runs the Melbourne underworld. More than once have others compared my sartorial style—the love of loud pinstripes and clashing contrasts of dark shirts and light-coloured ties—with that of Al Capone.
As Philip Mann observes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), the gangster, like the dandy, masters the sober uniform of the Businessman and pushes it to a récherché extreme, beyond the conventions of conservative rectitude, to the point of parody. The gangster, like the dandy, is the rebellious ‘inversion’ of the rôle of the Businessman. But whereas the dandy in some sense ‘satirizes’ the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Establishment, the gangster savagely exposes the blood on the Businessman’s hands, making no bones about the fact that the easy wealth of his ill-gotten gains comes from ‘making a killing’.
Certainly, the rather Italianate character of my prose, full of mannerist touches, might have an analogue in my Medicean love of outrageous intrigue.
It’s interesting to note that the Businessman eschews black in his wardrobe, whereas the gangster and the dandy both revel in it. As Martin and Koda say, ‘The rebel wears black. … Black serves as a sign of social militancy and provocation for men in a way that it does not for women. … [M]en in this century have worn gray or a limited palette of colors in deliberate avoidance of black. When black enters the wardrobe, it arrives with arresting authority and with a social goad.’
It’s the colour not merely of the transgressive Businessman personified by the gangster, but the colour of artists and poets, according to Martin and Koda. Citing Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion (1988), they describe the ‘triumph of black’ habitually ported by Charles Baudelaire as a ‘bohemian black’ which synthesizes the poet’s aspirations towards the Establishment of the French Academy with his inescapable outcast nature as an unreconstructable renegade.
And in its rebellious association with men who are intellectual threats to the established order of their societies, there is not merely something ‘clerical’ in the nature of black, according to Martin and Koda, but something perversely ‘spiritual’ about this most abjured colour: there is an almost satanic ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ about black, and the man who takes on the rebellious rôle of artist or poet takes on the uniform of an heretical priesthood, dedicating himself to ‘l’art pour l’art’.
I don’t know that I’m so habitually ensconced in black as I am in Alfonso’s photos, but certainly the Velázquean voluptuousness and elegance of black, its noirish, tenebrist radiance—with all the ambiguity and contradictions it suggests—makes it a staple of my wardrobe, a colour that synæsthetically resonates with my nature.
It’s a colour which symbolically connotes a man—whether he be gangster, spy, priest or poet—engaged in some shadowy enterprise, and as I said above, a writer’s work takes place ‘off-stage’, in the ‘backstage’ of life.
Nevertheless, there is a subdued ‘flamboyance’ about the writer: taking the stage only retroactively in the imagination of his readers, the deeply introverted, dandified man of letters perhaps sublimates his repressed performativity in the dark radiance of his uniform.
The trenchcoat, that outrageously démodé relic of the First World War has, ‘[i]n an almost inexplicable combination of meanings and implications,’ according to Martin and Koda, become inextricably associated with men who make their living by the pen and the typewriter, whether they are reporters or writers.
It has transformed itself, they say, from its weatherable functionality as a dependable part of an officer’s uniform, to the ‘sign of the individualist’ in civilian life.
‘It has since come to be identified with good taste,’ Martin and Koda write, ‘but with romantic overtones associated with writers, artists, and individualists…. Defying the convention of the wool overcoat, some men have insisted on wearing the trench coat as standard outer wear, not waiting for rain to justify the versatile and quixotic coat of the visionary….’
On the day Alfonso snapped me, I had just conveyed my freshly relined woollen overcoat to the dry-cleaner in anticipation of the Melbourne winter, so I just had my trenchcoat with me as a potential topcoat.
I would have had it anyway, for in Melbourne, one needs to be prepared for any eventuality—even at the risk of appearing ‘quixotic’—and I rarely step out the door without my trusty Dunn & Co. raincoat, which can equally serve as sufficient insulation against an autumnal Melbourne breeze.
I think the ‘visionary’ nature of this article of apparel probably stems from the ‘quixotic’ tendency of certain careful men (as any man of letters should be) to port it in all weathers, as a dependable, respectable, all-weather topcoat.
Winston Churchill, visionary individualist as a statesman, though quixotic to his contemporaries, was the writer not only prescient enough to foresee ‘the gathering storm’ of the Second World War from a long way off, but was the historian capable of compassing its complexity in retrospect, and he stubbornly ported his Aquascutum in fair weather as in foul.
With certain American writers—Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs among them—the trenchcoat has attained to the status of a signature element in their wardrobes, its patrician associations with officer’s garb and its democratic appropriation after the First World War suggesting a reversal of these writers’ pulpy American origins and their take-up by sophisticated Parisian publishers.
The trenchcoat’s style, like their literary styles, suggests the ‘down-at-heels’ elegance of a declassed gentleman.
For myself, being fundamentally a Parisian at heart, the trenchcoat is an ‘incontournable’ part of my uniform as a flâneur. It’s both strange and a testament to its hardiness and adaptability that this fundamentally British article should undergo so many transatlantic crossings, becoming indissociably associated in the public imaginary first with America, as the garment-of-trade of the intrepid reporter and gumshoe, and then with the French capital, as the grey flag of world-weary existentialists like Camus and Sartre, the tails of their raincoats flapping against the grey Parisian sky.
More than London, the trenchcoat, as article of choice of both Philip Marlowe and Jef Costello, seems as much the symbol of rainless L.A. as of perennially grey Paris, and Melbourne, sharing something of the atmospheric effects of the latter, is also a city in which the incognito camouflage of its mysterious greyness is appropriate for the writer-flâneur, a man whose profession is to be an ‘undercover reporter’ of life.
The thing about a trenchcoat is that, like a hat or a good pair of shoes, it requires the patina of age to look elegant. As Messrs. Miller and Burroughs demonstrate, a trenchcoat needs to look fashionably rumpled—like those gents themselves.
I’ve had my dun-coloured Dunn & Co. almost all my adult life—and it’s probably older than I am, since I acquired it in an op-shop on the Gold Coast when I was a mere gamin of twenty, by which time the venerable British brand had gone the way of all fashion.
It has traipsed with me through the jardin du Luxembourg, as my sole insulation against miserable days in Paris, just as it has served as an improvised blanket under which to do some fooling around with demoiselles Daygamed in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.
The Fedora and the trenchcoat, as the crown and the gown of your Melbourne Flâneur, this ‘prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’, as M. Baudelaire says, are probably the key symbols of my style, both personal and literary.
I’m most grateful to Alfonso Perez de Velasco for his handsome portraits of me, and I recommend that you check out his Instagram or visit his website to see more of his photographs, including Melbourne street scenes, other denizens of our fair city, and interesting travel pictures from around Asia.
Here’s a newsflash for those of you who have not been keeping up to date with the hourly drama that is the weather in Melbourne: it’s been a bit funny lately.
Melbourne is perhaps the only city in the world where the question, ‘What will I wear today?’ is an existential dilemma.
We’ve been having the ‘worst of both worlds’ these past couple of weeks: it’s been both muggy and cold, which means that if you dress for the humidity, you freeze, and if you dress for the rain, you sweat.
That was the uncomfortable dilemma I was living with when Melbourne photographer Tommy Backus (@writes_with_light on Instagram) caught me on the steps of the Nicholas Building in Flinders lane last week.
I first met Tommy in Frankston, where he took some handsome portraits of me, which you can check out here. It was a pleasure to run into him again, and a greater pleasure still to receive a compliment from him on my fashion. I had just come from a business meeting, and before that I had been cursing the ‘bloody Melbourne weather’: cold and rainy as it was, it was too damn muggy to be wearing a three-piece wool suit.
Such is the price of being a dandy, or ornate dresser, in Melbourne: your Melbourne Flâneur, dear readers, suffers on the crucifix of fashion.
You will doubtless recall that when I set forth my thoughts on what is a flâneur, I said that, in addition to being a pedestrian and the keenest possible observer of the æsthetic qualities latent in the urban environment, the flâneur must necessarily be a dandy.
This was the most controversial premise in my argument, but the logic was straightforward and sound: Charity, I said, begins at home, and a man who does not regard himself first and foremost as a worthy æsthetic object of investigation is highly unlikely to bring to bear that acute perspicacity to æsthetic detail in the external world which I attribute to the flâneur if he does not first of all attend to the details of his own person.
But let us not be in confusion about the dandy philosophy. As M. Baudelaire cautions us: ‘Dandyism is not, as many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe, an immoderate taste for clothes and material elegance. These things, for the perfect dandy, are merely symbols of the aristocratic superiority of his spirit.’
As Philip Mann discerned in his book The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), at heart, æsthetically-minded men who are accursed with the ‘pathology’ of dandyism seek to square the circle of life and art, of form and content, to unify self with the meaning that self creates. The dandy, says Mann, seeks ‘to become identical with himself’—that is, to become identical with his ideal of personality by applying the rigorous æsthetic of a work of art to his own life.
Thus, it is not difficult to see (as per Baudelaire) that the dandy’s outer person may be the canvas of his mind, and that the object of the ‘art’ of dandyism is to integrate the wood of character with the veneer, the outer being a platonic reflection of the inner.
But again, let us not fall precipitately into the error which would appear (superficially at least) to be the next logical steppingstone in our analysis of the dandy life: the dandy is not a ‘fop’.
Though he is androgynous by his very nature, arrogating to himself the feminine privilege of display, there is nothing ‘effeminate’ about the dandy.
As Beau Brummell—the first dandy, and an implacable foe of the kind of ‘peacockery’ in men’s fashion which he set himself to reform in the early nineteenth century—presciently divined, the essence of masculine beauty is of a ‘moral’ (that is, a spiritual) variety, in contradistinction to the physical quality of feminine beauty, and lies in masculine virtues, to wit:—simplicity, rectitude, honesty, discrimination, rigour and sobriety.
Along these classic lines, Brummell designed for himself the first modern ‘suit’—the perfection of masculine costume which, although it has been endlessly tinkered with, modified and refined since his day, will never be superseded by any masculine costume anywhere in the world, precisely because it gives the perfect outward form to the inner, spiritual qualities we associate with that being we call a ‘man’.
The dandy, in seeking to ‘become identical with himself’, identical with his ideal of personality, is not the epitome of masculine beauty because his clothes give him some special ‘aura’ he would otherwise lack, the way that dress, lingerie, makeup and jewellery heighten a woman’s allure and dissimulate her flaws; it is rather because he is at his ‘most transparent’—his most naked, even—when he is fully and perfectly dressed.
Any woman will tell you (by her behaviour, if not by her words) that the thing all women find most attractive in men is not their confidence, but their congruence—the transparent alignment of thoughts, words, and actions.
‘Honesty’ is a closely related quality in the constellation of masculine virtues which comprise congruence, and likewise, any woman will tell you (probably by her words, and certainly by her behaviour) that the thing she finds least attractive in a man is any whiff of ‘dishonesty’, any lack of transparent congruency in his thoughts, words and actions.
And it certainly does not go without saying that in adhering with especial scrupulousness to the rigorous and merciless rules of correct masculine attire which Mr. Brummell was the first to articulate, that a man cannot depart from the masculine virtues of simplicity, rectitude, discrimination and sobriety and still consider himself to be a dandy.
In other words, in contradistinction to what ‘many people who have hardly reflected on the subject appear to believe’, there is no place for the garish or the gaudy in the dandy’s wardrobe. Display for its own ebullient sake (that is, to ‘draw attention to oneself’) is exclusively a quality of the feminine.
The dandy does not ‘seek attention’. Rather, attention naturally finds him;—for we are always attracted to someone who shines with the aura of self-knowledge—including the knowledge of the ‘beauty’ of his own being, which he wears proudly, honestly, transparently for all the world to see, with modest confidence.
We are, in fine, attracted to anyone who gives evidence of being congruent with himself, for such a man, we know, is not easily found, and if he gives evidence of this, it is likely that he is in possession of other masculine virtues, such as honesty, reliability, dependability.
What distinguishes the dandy, however, from even the man who is very well-, very correctly, dressed with respect to ‘the details’ of his deportment, is that the dandy transcends the rules.
When anybody asks me, I tell them that if I were to define my personal style, it would be to say that I am ‘outrageouslyconservative’ in my approach to fashion.
That is, while I follow the rules scrupulously, as in the photograph above, some hint of my Aquarian nature always escapes the repressive, saturnine influence of Capricorn in me, whether that’s in the fine rainbow pinstripe of the otherwise sober black suit; the almost perfectly complimenting blue floral shirt and tie; or the bottle-green snapbrim Fedora, the Akubra I wore as a flâneur in Paris, with its jaunty red feather.
While perhaps outrageous in themselves, taken as an ensemble, they contribute to an effect of conservatism so extreme that they transcend sobriety in a rather unique way, one which conveys (if I am correctly interpreting the compliments I tend to get from people) the intense creativity and originality I bring to my work as a writer, which is always tempered by my equally intense adherence to precision, correctness, tradition, and ‘bonne forme’.
That is the vital æsthetic difference, the piquant je-ne-sais-quoi of exotic quality I bring to the bespoke writing, editorial and publishing concerns of my clients: like a tailor labouring in a noble and venerable tradition, they know that I will not only follow ‘the rules of good form’ scrupulously, but that, as an irrepressible artist, I will innovate to an unexpected degree within the very narrow latitude of creativity those rules allow to create a document unique to them.
What thinketh you, dear readers? Is the world ripe for a resurgence of dandyism—of ‘beautiful men’ who say and think and do in alignment with the highest versions of themselves? And do you agree that attention to the æsthetic essence of oneself is a cornerstone to being a flâneur?
I’m interested, as always, to contend, defend and generally converse with you in the comments below.
And I recommend you also check out Tommy Backus’s photographs on Instagram. As I said to him last week, it was nice to be able to put names to some of the kooky characters I’ve clocked around town.
‘… [T]he writer-dandy and by extension the director-dandy are arguably in a privileged position as they can apply their ideals to the limitless realm of fiction. The latter even has the potential to fulfil the depressive’s ultimate dream, the creation of a hermetic, artificial and complete world in accordance with his own highly individual ideal of beauty, his specific tastes.’ — Philip Mann, The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century.