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 ‘outrageously conservative’ 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.
A question I am often asked is, ‘What is a flâneur?’ As I explain in today’s video, a flâneur is a kind of ‘Parisian idler’.
Flâner (the French verbal infinitive from which the noun is derived) means both to stroll, saunter, walk or wander more or less aimlessly, and to loaf, laze, or lounge about. The ambulatory motion of the former would seem to preclude the stasis of the latter:—how does one walk and sit at the same time?
This paradox is merely the foundation of a complex structure of irreconcilable logical paradoxes which comprise the ludic enterprise of flânerie and constitute the characteristics of the flâneur.
The question then follows, what is it like to be a Melbourne flâneur? If to be a flâneur is to be a Parisian idler, then to be a Parisian idler in Melbourne would seem to add one paradox de trop to the complex character of the flâneur.
Pas du tout.
I find a lot of similarities between Melbourne and Paris. People often ask if Melbourne is like Europe. The answer is yes. Of all the Australian capitals, Melbourne has the strongest ties to Europe, and despite its fraternal links to Greece and Italy, there seems to me to be an unmistakable soupçon parisien to its arcades and laneways, its bars and cafés, such that I sometimes think of Melbourne as being ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’.
Key to Melbourne’s Parisian flavour is its walkability. It is, like Paris, a remarkably ‘walkable’ city: you can go very far on foot, and to be a flâneur you must be prepared to travel Melbourne without a car.
Fortunately, its famous tram network (the most extensive in the world) serves roughly an analogous rôle to the Paris Métro, being thoroughly integrated into the peculiar character of the city and the fabric of its streets.
This means that if you get tired of walking in Melbourne, you don’t have to go too far to find the nearest tram stop!
The reason why the flâneur is necessarily a pedestrian is because the pace of idle observation is measured by the foot. In his essay Le peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Charles Baudelaire defines the flâneur as a ‘passionate observer’ whose home lies in the crowd; as a ‘mirror’ large as the crowd itself; as ‘a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’ which reflects its movements.
In fine, the flâneur is an instrument of observation which reflects the colourful spectacles it observes in two ways: both matter-of-factly, as a mirror reflects actuality, and interpretatively, as a thoughtful subject who reflects upon what it sees.
You can see why the observational avocation of the flâneur might be an amusing exercise for someone whose vocation it is to be a writer: the writer’s desire to transcribe the external details of reality with the rigorous exactitude of a piece of recording equipment finds its playful analogue in his detectival attempts to divine the hidden causes and motivations behind the riddle of events observed obliquely, en passant.
The art of writing is essentially the art of thinking, and there must necessarily be objects upon which the writer may reflect if he is to express his thoughts articulately. To wander dreamily through a beautiful city like Paris or Melbourne is, for a writer, both physical and mental exercise: it allows him scope to play with objects in the landscape, practising his powers of observation and description as he reflects them and reflects upon them in articulations he makes to himself.
‘To feel and to think’, to satisfy the desires associated with such abstract work, to cultivate the ideal of masculine beauty about their persons, this, for Baudelaire, is the sole profession of the dandy, whom he conflates with the flâneur, that ‘prince who revels in his incognito everywhere he goes.’
Indeed, there must always be something of the dandy about the flâneur. Among his many paradoxes, this slumming spy who loves ‘to be in the midst of the crowd and yet hidden from it’ is very much a ‘man of fashion’ in the classic sense, like an heir-apparent travelling in a foreign country under an assumed name, with nothing but the unmistakable marks of his elegance to betray his royal birth.
You cannot be a flâneur pur sang and not have more than a soupçon of the dandy about you. Precision of observation does not extend to external objects before it takes account of the correctness of one’s own comportment.
It is perhaps surprising to notice how many great writers, whose idle profession of feeling and thinking takes place in the ‘backstage’ of life, away from the observation of others, such that these spies are rarely the cynosure of all eyes, have nevertheless a touch of the dandy about them, a concern for dapper deportment.
An orderly mind is best expressed by orderly dress. And it is rare to find a writer who expresses himself on the page with unusual stylistic panache and who does not also possess some exquisite sprezzatura in his personal style.
Elegant writing, like elegant suiting, is the mastery of convention and the transcendence of strict limitations which define the correctness of expression.
With my Bespoke Document Tailoring service, I can help you to write elegant business documentation which is bespoke to your needs. If you want your documentation to reflect a bespoke image, to possess that æsthetic difference, the piquant je-ne-sais-quoi of exotic quality, why not collaborate with a writer who brings the keen perception and care for detail of the flâneur to your concerns?
I invite you to contact me to arrange a measure. And if you enjoyed this article, or if it aroused ideas of your own you would like to share with me, I would love to hear your thoughts on the flâneur in the comments below.
As someone not unskilled at picking up las chicas en la calle, I appreciated the direct way in which Melbourne photographer Tommy Backus (@writes_with_light) approached me in Frankston and asked if he could take my photograph.
I was surprised, moreover, at what his camera saw.
Are you surprised at how others see you? I confess I often am. To see yourself in a photograph is like seeing yourself reflected in a mirror which is angled away from you: you catch an unexpected vision of yourself—side-on, as it were.
I didn’t altogether recognize the dapper gloved gent staring back at me from Tommy’s photographs with such steely confidence. Was this really the vision that others had of me as I took my dreamy flâneries down Melbourne’s laneways?
The hard-eyed, no-nonsense gent in these photographs looked more like a dandy Don Draper than Dean Kyte.
As I studied the stranger in the photographs, I was reminded of something which a girl had said to me once. I picked her up in Chinatown, approaching her with the same sort of humble directness with which Tommy had approached me in the Shannon street mall.
It was our second rendez-vous. As we departed the Treasury Gardens and wended our way down the Paris end of Collins street, she told me of some of the manipulative and socially unintelligent manœuvres which other men had pulled on her in the past. I violently expressed my disgust with what I considered to be ‘weak’ behaviours because (as I had learned to my cost) they are ultimately unnecessary.
She gave a kind of ‘verbal shrug’, as if to say, ‘But of course!’ It was natural, to her mind, that I should regard such behaviours as weak and unnecessary.
‘You are a confident man,’ she told me, quite matter-of-factly, as though the intelligence was already well-known to me and she was not, in fact, giving me a revelatory clue to the mystery (which always preoccupies me) of who the hell I am.
I was as surprised by that observation of myself by another as I was looking at this confident gentleman I hardly recognized as me in Tommy’s photographs. I didn’t ‘feel’ especially confident. Perhaps truly confident men never do, because they never think about it.
In Daygame, we used to say that confidence was nothing more than ‘situational competence’: you gain competence (and thus confidence) as a man by consistently throwing yourself into situations where you are not yet confident (such as approaching women in the street) and mastering that domain until it enters into your economy of habits as an ‘unconscious competency’.
The truly confident man is, I think, as much a man of thought as of action. To act decisively, with confidence, demands that we first of all consider the complexity of problems at a very deep level. This takes time and does not preclude the potential for self-doubt: confidence is not something you ‘have’ even when you are competent in a given situation; it is a reserve you call upon to inspire action.
Certainly I did not ‘feel’ especially confident when I picked up the girl who alerted me to my innate confidence. I had no intimation of what would transpire between us in a very few hours’ time, and I almost let her walk past before the reserve of unconscious competence commanded me to approach.
Indeed, I sensed a similar ‘summoning of courage’ in Tommy when he stopped me in Frankston, which made me appreciate his direct yet humble approach. If you want to see Melbourne like a local, I recommend that you take a look at other of his portraits of Melburnians on Instagram.