Congratulations on being born male. Your passport to confusion will be mailed to you shortly. Open it and you will discover only questions. What will you do with your life? What will you wear while doing it? How will you comport yourself around other men? How should you treat women? Of course, it would be so much easier to have simply been born a woman. For spiritual and material guidance women have advertising, specially made for them by men. But don’t men have advertising, too? Yes, but made by other men. So what can we learn from it? Not a lot.
Let’s hunt around for clues in advertising as to what a man should be doing with his life. Many people reading this will remember the ‘I’m a Mac’ series of television commercials that portrayed the model Apple consumer as a t-shirt-wearing, hands-in-pockets, easygoing kinda guy, and the typical PC user as an uptight corporate blockhead.
We are steeped in the signs and we understand the connotation that it is the Mac user we should aspire to be like. The demeaning alternative is to be a nondescript ‘suit’, here metonymically standing for the man who has sold his soul to the corporation. Instead, a man must strive to bolster his individualism by choosing the second most-popular consumer gadget. As other commercials will testify, he can project an insouciant competence in life by dressing casually, speaking plainly and smirking occasionally.
We all know this exemplary smirking idiot. He is the early adopter of shoes, the john of audio equipment, and the sultan of gum. He always subverts the rule that it is better to be slightly overdressed. A suit and tie are not for him, thanks. Although they are by no means smirking idiots, I can count several acquaintances who consider wearing a suit to be an affront to their individualism, and will even let this dictate their career choices. Yet the paradox of uniformity in casual dress means that they spend their whole lives closely resembling other people anyway.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, for example, is known to forsake a suit in favour of a classic ’50s bohemian ensemble of blue jeans and black polo-neck (I’m more disturbed by the fact that he doesn’t wear a belt) but when the camera swings around, what do we see but an audience of company adherents in identical attire. In challenging the orthodoxy and squareness of corporate life, Jobs and his generation merely created new definitions of orthodoxy and squareness.
‘I’m a Mac’ offered a similarly restricted lifestyle choice. By contrasting let-it-all-hang-out individualism with suited conformity, these ads presented a false dichotomy that tells us a lot about male despondency today. For the opposite of casually-attired nonchalance is not squareness, it is dandyism.
The dandyism I speak of here is not the flamboyant kind, not the perfumed and bewhiskered caricature. Dandyism here means fastidious attention to one’s appearance and demeanour. It need not entail pipe-smoking, monocle-wearing or butterfly-collecting, although none of these things should be held in contempt. A dandy is an elevated form of man concerned above all with meeting the highest expectations of society in manners and dress. The differing outlooks of the dandy and the bohemian are described by evangelical dandy Lord Whimsy in his book The Affected Provincial’s Companion:
“Bohemianism strives to be more chaotic and less restrained than the status quo, but dandyism concerns itself with the opposite, becoming as poised, self-contained, and rarified as its circumstances will allow. In other words, bohemianism ignores rules that mainstream society cannot afford to disregard, whereas dandyism obeys rules that mainstream society cannot afford to observe.” 
Bohemianism thus presents a certain resistance to authority, itself a form of orthodoxy and one that has been co-opted by corporate leaders who insist on being called by their first names and dispensing with a tie in the workplace. The dandy, meanwhile, invents for himself aristocratic titles and can knot a tie in fifteen different ways with his eyes closed. Rent movies, skim the business weeklies, and immerse oneself in ads, and you will find it is bohemianism that currently holds sway.
By co-opting the glamour of the troubled artist, the troubled rock star and the troubled celluloid icon while quietly completing their college educations, bohemians have triumphed in sexual selection stakes, while the dandy is regarded as an anachronism. With the whole world orientated towards bohemianism, the dandy’s tendencies towards formality in speech and dress are the mark of the square and his refined aestheticism easily confused with homosexuality. As Lord Whimsy himself rues, we live in an age in which “Gentlemen are mistaken for sissies.”
Modern-day dandies are thus forced to plead irony in their love of rare tobacco, or else enjoy an illicit and vicarious dandyism in the pages of style guides such as GQ and Esquire which present an acceptable strain of male narcissism within the conventional manly realms of sports, chauvinism and gizmo worship.
Yet, for a very different picture, travel back to the not-too-distant past. In the 19th century, it was bohemians like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau who sought spiritual exile from worldly concerns, while dandies enjoyed the company of women in the cities. The values encoded in dandyism of exquisiteness in speech and dress, and chivalry in romance, were not far removed from those admired by mainstream bourgeois and aristocratic society.
Nor did the code of dandyism die with the Victorians. Until the triumph of bohemian capitalism, the traditional corporate worker was highly accessorised. Attaché case, fedora, necktie, vest, cufflinks, umbrella, cardholder, tie clasp, handkerchief, money clip, and whatever else he could conceivably carry: more than a ‘suit’, he was a walking aggregation of furnishings which granted him enormous dandy potential. The modern company man epitomised by Steve Jobs has but two outlets for sartorial expression: his glasses and his t-shirt slogan.
Bohemianism has conquered the boardroom, but it is not the spiritual rejection of materialism proclaimed by its intellectual forebears. Modern, mainstream bohemianism is a certain disregard for formality and ceremony in the pursuit of wealth, and that means disregard for the social nuances and refinements dandies hold dear. Today’s CEO’s look like college students—probably are college students—while today’s dandies are apt to resemble 19th-century industrialists.
If we draw a line between the traditional corporation and its modern equivalent with the founding of Microsoft in 1975, the traditional corporation was fundamentally square but offered a certain whiff of dandyism, while the modern corporation is also fundamentally square but offers a pale imitation of bohemia. If bohemianism was absolutely the correct response to straight society up until the 1970s, then a certain degree of dandyism should be a natural reflex to modern working life.
So, in this unforgiving climate, how does one embrace dandyism without loss of social standing? How to seek rarified pleasure in millinery, and still get the girl? Now that bohemianism is on the cover of Businessweek, dandies must inherit the mantle of rebellion. Instead of throwbacks, they must become insurgents. Abandoning arcane comforts, they should use modern communications to draw attention to the deficiencies in the contemporary masculine ideal. That is why I am thrilled to be writing for The Rugged Gentleman, a new forum for interrogation of these values.
Over the coming months, I intend to write about masculinity with a special perspective on the one country that continues to elevate dandyism to a social ideal: Japan.
Not coincidentally, as well as the best place to go shopping for the man-furnishings mentioned earlier, Japan is also the final stronghold of the traditional corporation. In their junior years of college, male students do not drop out to become dot-com entrepreneurs; they attend corporate recruitment seminars to study necktie etiquette, which includes learning the subtle differences in meaning of diagonal stripe orientation. Tokyo is literally studded with multi-storey shopping emporia for working men that curate the ultimate in European sophistry in leather goods and the best American prep.
I will not be wallowing in all this ephemera, you understand, but using this space to test out theories on work, leisure, marriage, fatherhood and old age. I hope you will join me.
1. The Affected Provincial’s Companion (Bloomsbury, 2006) is a veritable field manual of retrograde attacks on masculinity by Lord Whimsy. But not everyone would accept his taxonomies. In Bobos in Paradise (Touchstone, 2000), for example, David Brooks considers dandyism merely a strain of bohemianism that “came and went” in the 19th century. The article above arrives at another conclusion: that dandyism is a necessary response to bohemianism’s dismissal of ceremony from public life. As with most other philosophies, dandyism is ultimately whatever you will it to be.