Great dandies never forget that moment in life when their true vocation is revealed. The artist and playwright Mr John Byrne grew up in Ferguslie Park (“at the time pretty much the worst slum in Europe”, in his words) in Paisley, Scotland and recalls, “My earliest dandy memory was aged seven or eight wanting for some reason a grey woollen jersey with a collar, which I’d seen a boy wearing at school – it was a kind of fashion that swept my primary school in 1947. Instead my gran brought me a jerkin – a blouson – in loud and bold, green and white check, like a plaid.”
Sixty or so years on, plaid, like the skirl of Mr Byrne’s native bagpipes, remains a refrain of his wardrobe. At the revival of his play, Bohemian Rhapsody, at last May’s Boswell Book Festival, he wore a 1940s Savile Row suit in a brown shepherd’s check overlaid with crimson and orange stripes. His most recent commission from his Italian tailor, Mr Giuseppe Canatti at Italian Style in Edinburgh, is a pair of trousers and a waistcoat, cut from a piece of hound’s-tooth plaid and to be worn with his 1940s suit jacket. A man of many parts, Mr Byrne is a dandy as well as an artist and playwright, and he has recently unveiled his newly completed fresco on the 85sqm domed ceiling of Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre.
Being a dandy is not just about dress. It affects everything – what you read, the way you deal with individuals. Dandies are gentlemen – utterly charming and people enjoy being around them
“I’m a Beau Brummell man: clothes immaculate and odd,” he says. “I prefer to downplay; I’m no peacock.” Mr Brummell, who reigned over London’s world of rank and fashion from around 1800 to 1816 (when his credit ran out or, according to dandiacal essayist Sir Max Beerbohm, “that fearful day he lost his figure and had to flee the country”), is the high priest of dandyism, whose disciplined yet radical taste in clothes, his wit and steely detachment, taught his contemporaries in Regency London how to dress. Sir Max defined Mr Brummell’s look “as the production of the supreme effect through means the least extravagant… in certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen… lay the secret of Mr Brummell’s miracles.”
Mr Brummell invented the English style, which even today infiltrates the cut and detail of every suit whether it’s hand-tailored on Savile Row or industrially manufactured in some far-flung factory in Asia. He consolidated the glorious revolution of the male wardrobe, which saw 17th-century court dress (an embroidered coat, lace ruffles and hose) discarded in favour of a plain cutaway coat, a simple neckcloth and a pair of breeches. Horse-riding nobility and country squires habitually wore the latter outfit; Mr Brummell’s genius was to adapt these practical country clothes into the perfect garments for the most elegant townie.
Of course, there was more to Mr Brummell than just his clothes – his temperament and attitude were as important as his appearance. Two hundred years after Mr Brummell’s heyday, Mr Harry Mundy, a 21st-century dandy, says that “Being a dandy is not just about dress. It affects everything – what you read, your speech, the way you deal with individuals. Dandies are gentlemen – a gentleman can come from any walk of life – utterly charming and people enjoy being around them.”
The Eton uniform never had enough flourish in the tailcoat for my taste, so I went around in my overcoat, which had a much bigger skirt, adapted by my school tailor, Billings & Edmonds
Mr Mundy left school at 16 to study at Vivienne Westwood, which he followed with a stint at Savile Row tailors Chittleborough & Morgan, who themselves worked alongside the radical 1960s tailor, Mr Tommy Nutter. “I learnt to block patterns, cut and hand sew,” remembers Mr Mundy. “They taught me how to enhance the classic look in a creative way – with the Nutter wide lapels, longer jackets and slim trousers – what a gent would get away with without looking too foppish.” Mr Mundy, who designs all his own clothes, sometimes hides sartorial flourishes from view. “It’s down to cut but also detail,” he explains. “I’m having purple stitching inside my new jacket, but only I know it’s there as you would never see it unless the jacket was taken apart.”
Mr Mundy’s supressed interest in colour and distrust of foppishness is in contrast to the braggadocio of Mr Ed Behrens. Mr Behrens, like Mr Brummell, attended England’s famous Eton College, where boys are drilled in the discipline of dress by wearing a uniform of tailcoat, white shirt and starched white collar. However, like Mr Brummell, who twitted the headmaster for the imperfection of his neckcloth, Mr Behrens found the school sartorially wanting. “The famous Eton uniform never had enough flourish in the tailcoat for my taste,” he recalls. “I was far more attracted to the frock coat, so I went around in my overcoat, which had a much bigger skirt and was adapted for me by my school tailor, Billings & Edmonds.”
“Clothes,” believes Mr Behrens, “are a very clever way of declaring yourself against the mainstream without sparking a revolution. To the uninformed this attitude is apparently frivolous because ‘they are only clothes’, whereas to the dandy clothes are so serious it’s no joke.” He recalls with disdain the fact that, “In the late 1990s, Etonians were sludge coloured for five years, wearing grey and brown cargo trousers and huge sweatshirts – more suitable for Baltimore than Windsor. Since then I’ve always followed a bright and elaborate wardrobe policy.”
Originally, I walked down the street with a sense of bravado, but now I have the self-confidence to dress how I please. I was hidden for long enough
Mr Behrens says he admires “Clothes looking like something they’re not”, citing Mr Brummell’s shredding of a neckcloth with shards of glass. Mr Behrens says that the result was that, “His head appeared to be floating above this tattered scarf in the most romantic way.” Scarves are Mr Behren’s trademark, but, unlike Mr Brummell’s ghostly confection, he prefers sensational, coloured South American woollen scarves 8ft long and “piled around my neck as a contemporary ruff”. He describes his look as, “The ability to present a discreet but witty face to the world. It’s coherent. I’m a Firbankian dandy.”
An early 20th-century experimental novelist, Mr Ronald Firbank was one of a rich stream of writers, artists and poets to have been inspired by dandyism. His ornamental, Gothic tales place him at the foppish frontier of the movement, even though one of his greatest admirers was the young Mr Evelyn Waugh, whose immaculate dress sense matched his fastidious prose.
The dandy and the artist promenade arm in arm. Both are outsiders and subversives, who gaze with ironical detachment upon the humdrum tapestry of life. “I was already drawing constantly by the age of seven,” says Mr Byrne. “And I do see a real connection with dress. At about that age, I saw a photo of an artist with a beret and cloak, who lived in Paris. He had a goatee beard and from that moment I always wanted a beard. I grew my first one – under the chin – when a student in 1958 at the Glasgow School of Art.” And true to the tradition of dandyism Mr Byrne blew his student allowance each term on shirts at a shop called Esquire, which he describes as “The perfect expression of transatlantic Glasgow”.
After a lifelong pursuit of dandyism, Mr Byrne concludes: “My style has all just come together. Originally, I walked down the street with a sense of bravado, but now I have the self-confidence to dress how I please. I was hidden for long enough – I’m a much more odd person now than I ever was. It’s grand. I’ve come into my own.” That, surely, is the goal of all true men of fashion.
Photography by Mr John Lindquist | Words by Mr James Knox
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