Lately, I have been teaching my students about the fashions of the Romantic Era (1820-1850), and have really rediscovered a wonderful time for menswear. Women's clothing of this time period are a little too much for my personal tastes; the over-the-top frilly and pretty confections are too feminine (and uncomfortable looking) for me. What is amazing, however, about clothing of the Romantic era is the supreme elegance of the menswear, and the emergence of the cult of male beauty and refinement known as Dandyism.
Fashion historians often view dandyism as stemming from two main sources: first, the late eighteenth century vogue for all things English, clothing included. English suits were always simpler than French styles, and cut from plain dark colored woolen fabrics or leathers. The English style of dressing was rugged, practical, and suitable for an active life.
Second, the start of the nineteenth century saw the Napoleonic Wars being fought across Europe, and with wars came soldiers. Men in their pristine, beautifully tailored uniforms were seen everywhere. With the British victory at Waterloo, the English officers were idolized and celebrated. One could not help but notice their bravado and swagger, along with their impeccable uniforms.
These examples made a strong impact on young men, especially in England. A cultish 'club' of male elegance emerged by the early 1820s in London. Young men aimed at the highest personal refinement; from clothes to physique, from manners to wit. They were almost untouchable; unable to love anyone due to their infatuation with themselves.
Romantic era menswear is characterized by the domination of the black suit. After the French Revolution, men abandonned colorful silks and satins for more sober, dark garments. Dandies conformed to the dictates of fashion and wore plain colored ensembles, but the difference was in the tailoring. A true dandy's entire wardrobe would be made to measure, and many were in serious debt to tailors due to this fact. The dandy often preferred a tight fit for his suits, so a good physique was necessary as well. Nothing was left to chance with a dandy's grooming, and clothing had to be perfect. The most celebrated of the dandies, Beau Brummel, was said to spend five hours a day dressing, and polish his boots with champagne.
I love looking at portraits of dandies; not only are their clothes fabulous, but their magnetism and arrogance is always apparent. I like that in an age when men's clothing was all about soberness and conformity, a group of young stylish dandies made elegance and personal refinement an artform.