Media & Cultural Studies

The emergence of the female dandy

vestasm

Publicity photograph of Vesta Tilley as a man, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Dandyism is a sunset; like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy.”  (Baudelaire [1863] 1995) Senem Yazan explores the little-acknowledged realm of the female dandy that existed in Paris and London from the 1840’s to the 1920’s.

The black princess of elegance: The emergence of the female dandy

by: Senem Yazan
in: Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty : Volume 3 / Issue 1-2


IQ Overview:

The title of Senem Yazan’s article, The black princess of elegance, gender flips a quote from Baudelaire:

“A dandy was the Black Prince of Elegance, the demigod of boredom who looked at the world with an eye as glassy as his pince-nez, suffering because his disarranged cravat had a crease, like the ancient Sybarite who suffered because his rose was crushed. He is indifferent about the horse he rides, the woman he greats, and the man he encounters and at whom he gazes a while before recognizing him. He bears, written on his forehead—in English—this insolent incription: What do you and I have in common?”
(Saint-Victor, P. D. (21 August 1859), La Presse cited in Steele, V. (1998), Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, New York: Berg.)

Dandyism had a much more complex philosophical perspective than simply an irrepressible preference for dove grey trousers and emerald green silk cravats. It arose at a time when the entire fabric of European society was being unravelled and re-woven into modernity. It was a period, Yazan claims, ” in which social climbing or distinction was the ultimate aim…” At it’s most basic level, Dandyism could perhaps be seen as the assertion that ‘aristocratic’ was no longer a quality of birth, but of character. In her article, Yazan “builds on the definition of dandyism as a whole state of being in the creation and presentation of the self, and of the dandy as an outsider due to gender, sexuality and class.”

From Baudelaire’s perspective, and that of society in general, a dandy was indisputably a man. A perceived lack of essential—and essentially masculine—qualities ostensibly prevented women participating in true dandyism, namely: “aloofness, cynicism, provocation and decadence that depended on an underlying autonomy.” Yazan, however, explores the little-acknowledged realm of the female dandy that did, in fact, exist in Paris in London around the turn of last century. She posits it it as a tactical position from which certain women were able to investigate issues of patriarchy and class. In doing so, she looks at three particular strands: women who engaged in dandyism via analogously flamboyant feminine fashions—but with a more traditionally masculine brashness; women who worked as professional male impersonators; and a culturally elite circle of American-Parisian lesbians who cross-dressed to impeccable standards of dandyism. Just as male dandies could be seen as more feminine due to their delicate, fastidious nature and general indifference to the opposite sex (as described by Baudelaire, above), female dandies crossed gender lines towards traditionally masculine traits and aesthetics.

As Yazan describes, “In nineteenth-century French society, the courtesan, referred to as a ‘femme excentrique’ due to her extravagant attire and quasi-masculine audacity, played a key role in the representation of dandyism.” As an illustration of this, Yazan focusses on Countess de Castiglione, who was professionally photographed extensively while wearing a vast array of costumes and gowns. According to the author, the flamboyance of de Castiglione’s poses aligned her more with a theatrical female impersonator than with a traditional female. “By challenging the conventions of masculinity and femininity regarding body poses (modesty, restraint and passivity for women; dignity, strength and nobleness for men), the Countess exploited the mirroring qualities of the camera (the anticipation of the self, seeing the self, being seen) as she staged herself in various disguises, interacting in a theatrical display.”

Other women of the era outright impersonated men in a professional theatrical capacity, and garnered large followings by doing so. One of the most famous was Vesta Tilley. A star of Victorian and Edwardian music halls, Yazan claims that that Tilley “called attention to the complexities and constructedness of masculinity while inviting reinterpretation with characters that were neither butch nor effeminate.” She continues, “They were elegant, beautiful and vulnerable, part of a constellation of performances throughout the Victorian period and the early twentieth century that troubled and critiqued what it meant to be desirable.” A contemporary newspaper once published the opinion that London’s fashionable gentlemen took their sartorial cues from Tilley’s performances.

Yazan also discusses artist Romaine Brooks and author Radclyffe Hall as representatives of an ultra-intellectual set of lesbians that lived primarily in Paris during this era:

A number of women artists and writers sought to separate anatomy from destiny, assuming an identity that would question the roles prescribed by the conventional sexual ideologies. The term ‘inversion’, used by women to describe their own sexual inclinations, meant for them not only the desire for someone of the same sex, but also the need to play out the sexual ambiguity of a woman in man’s clothes seducing another woman to lesbian love.

Through their painting, their writing, and through their adoption of the elegant masculine
attire of dandies, Brooks, Radclyffe and their extended social circle infused “male imagery with feminine meaning”. Prevalent understanding sees dandyism as a philosophy conceived of and lived out by men. Contrary to this, Yazan situates the dandy’s ambiguously gendered expressions within the arc of feminist history.

If the dandy was constructing his visual presence like a form of spectacle and a theatrical staging, this self-objectification brought him closer to women who took over this performance and delivered it in a different context and for different audiences… These women approached this ideal through an insistence on ‘self-discipline’ and ‘novelty’, creating an ‘original work’ out of their own being, revolting briefly against the ‘corrupt civilization’ of the modern century. They strived to find something distinctive, ‘the cult of the self’ with the naivety of Baudelairean romanticism and the extravagance of a bohemian.

—————

The original article is available on IngentaConnect

Senem Yazan is a final year research student at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. Yazan’s research focuses on literary, visual and social dandyism in the lives and works of women in turn of the century Paris and London, with emphasis on the philosophy behind and the circumstances around the formation of the female dandy. Yazan holds a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design and earned a Masters of Arts with distinction from Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University in 2008. Her thesis ‘The Constant Avant-garde’ investigated the effects of displacement, alienation and colonialism on cultural identity with focus on the all-female Takarazuka Revue. Prior to her academic career, she had extensive industrial experience as a production designer in fashion, film, theatre, opera and modern dance. Recipient of numerous awards and grants, Yazan was appointed to the Swedish Arts Grants Committee and IASPIS delegation in Sweden.

Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty is the first journal dedicated to the critical examination of the fashion and the beauty systems as symbolic spaces of production and reproduction, representation and communication of artifacts, meanings, social practices, and visual or textual renditions of cloth, clothing and appearance.

Principle Editor

Efrat Tseëlon
University of Leeds
e.tseelon@leeds.ac.uk