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Confessions of a Modern-Day Dandy

by Sebastian Horsley
Mar 20, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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The parade of dressing up came from Mother. If she had been Queen of England she would have worn her crown at breakfast. I can remember her dressing once with great care in front of the mirror before going out, demanding that one of her children accompany her. "Which child?" The nanny asked. "I don't care" Mother snapped. "Whichever one goes with red velvet." (Naturally it was me).

One day I stole into Mother's dressing room and, draping myself in her black feather boa, slid on her pink silk gloves. I sat at her dressing table and painted myself with her brightest red lipstick. I can still remember the sticky aroma and the strange waxy texture on my lips. But I was dazzled by the gash across my face. Copying Mother, I rubbed my lips together, pursing and pouting in the mirror. The transformation was intoxicating.

I had no choice. I had not created myself but I was stuck with myself and when I was stuck with myself I would create myself. By the time I got to my velveteens, with a exuberant explosion of sequins and silk I had arrived.

Goodbye School. Hello Tailor. I remember having my first suits made — with their cuts and their plunges, their sweeps and their collars. As the tailor draped me in a sevenfold velvet shield of insignificance I knew that I was finally free. We are all imprisoned in our own skins, for life. No longer. Dandyism is the lion skin in which the lamb masquerades.

So what is dandyism? Dandyism is a form of self-worship which dispenses with the need to find happiness from others — especially women. And yet the estrangement of the thorough going dandy is not from women, but from life. It is taking up a posture of ironic detachment from the world and living it out in scrupulous detail.

Dandyism is social, human and intellectual. It is not a suit of clothes walking about by itself. Clothes are merely a part — they may even be the least important part of the personality of the dandy. Dandyism isn't image encrusted with flourishes. It's a way of stripping yourself down to your true self. You can only judge the style by the content and you can only reach the content through the style.

Being a dandy is a condition rather than a profession. It is a defiance against suffering and a celebration of life. It is not fashion; it is not wealth; it is not learning; it is not beauty. It is a shield and a sword and a crown — all pulled out of the dressing up box in the attic of the imagination. Dandyism is a lie which reveals the truth, and the truth is that we are what we pretend to be.

The only way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in a perpetual orgy of absurdity.

When I hear thunder, I take a bow.

When I hear rain, I assume it is applause.

And so like the sun, I shine, having no alternative.

I shall be a reprobate dandy; that's my job. And the good lord will forgive me: That's his.

Commentator Sebastian Horsley is the author of the memoir, Dandy in the Underworld. He lives in London.

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