You knew it was coming. How could a style writer stay away for long from the man whose out-of-context quote emboldened generations of fops, bestowing pseudointellectual and political prestige on overdress? You know the one I mean, "In truth, I am not altogether wrong to consider dandyism a form of religion." Beloved of my e-friend, the scenester and confirmed original Jeffrey Ying, this excerpt, from Baudelaire’s essay Le peintre de la vie moderne, suggests that the dandy is perhaps the only true individual left, his doctrine of elegance as holy and fanatic as that of Hassan-ben-Sabah, whose stoned zealot followers gave us the term “assassin.” The comparison isn’t mine, Baudelaire himself makes it in the same essay, which in reality is a piece of art criticism about the illustrator Constantin Guys. Guys himself wasn’t thrilled with Baudelaire’s analysis.
While that quote has made Baudelaire an icon to today’s internet dandies, my reasons for considering Baudelaire a style icon are…a bit different. How could I resist a man whose working title for his masterwork Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) was Lesbiennes (no translation needed)? More seriously, Baudelaire’s own life story makes him an icon not just of dandyism, but, poignantly, of style.
While held up as an icon of dandies, Baudelaire’s few portraits don’t necessarily support his adherence to what we consider French dandyism. That, of course, would be what Count d’Orsay imported from England after fleeing his creditors, a very liberal translation of the fastidious splendor of his sartorial predecessor Beau Brummell into flamboyant colors set off with lavish and jeweled accessories. Instead, in one of the most famous photos of Baudelaire, by Etienne Carjat, he looks tightly wound (far tighter than the dark tie looped around his throat), and like he is going to punch someone.
That pent-up fury may have had something to do with Baudelaire’s adult history. Clashing with his stepfather, a conservative Army officer and diplomat, upon reaching majority Baudelaire became entitled to an inheritance from his late father, and dissipated half of it in three years, largely on clothes (including rose-pink gloves). His family attempted to rein him in, putting the remainder into a trust that paid him a meagre allowance on which he lived in misery. For the rest of his life, he eked out his living as a freelance writer, including work as an art critic, including the piece on Guys mentioned above.
After losing control of his inheritance, Baudelaire’s own dress, according to perhaps the best men’s dress historian of the 20th century, James Laver, became simple, monochromatically black, and frankly somewhat careless (although Laver notes that Baudelaire boasted of never spending less than two hours on his grooming). Brummell, too, had recommended severity in the colors and cut of a man’s attire, but Baudelaire’s was enforced, required by his straitened circumstances. Brummell had also switched to darker clothes and cravats as he sank into poverty and syphilitic misery as an exile in Caën, the better to hide dirt and stains. The dandies of the generation after Brummell, those spawned in imitation of d’Orsay, were a gilded youth of the Second Empire (started by Napoleon’s nephew after a political coup) who probably never read Baudelaire and his appreciation of dandyism as a political act. Even if Baudelaire could no longer afford the clothes he had loved, he could appreciate it from afar. Perhaps that distance gave him the perspective to consider the roles a dandy could play: in that same essay on Guys he noted that the dandy arose in times of political and social upheaval, in the uncertainty of class distinctions, a marginal figure who could free himself from easy definition or attribution, a figure dedicated to an ideal that was contrary to social pressures, should indeed be excused for running up debts in pursuit of his originality, and thus transgressive.
To Baudelaire, the dandy, then, was a rebel – his ally against the strictures and structures Napoleon III was imposing on France and especially on Paris, tearing up the streets themselves to make them harder to blockade, in other words, anticipating and suppressing rebellion. Baudelaire’s dandy was a close cousin to the flâneur, the rootless wanderer and observer who could lose himself in what remained of the winding streets of the old Paris. For the new, the change, in that age was not necessarily positive: it was power consolidating its hold over the people.
From his poetry, the attitude most closely associated with Baudelaire is not sprezzatura but spleen, perhaps the perfect emotion to describe having something bought out under you on eBay. What makes Baudelaire a style icon to me, apart from his idealization of a dandyism that existed only in concept, is his engagement with a world where he no longer could rock the latest, most luxurious fashions, as he had in his sartorially wanton youth. Rather, he confronted through his writing the unfairnesses of a world of both flamboyant feasts and famine and vicissitudes of excess and want. Superficially like Brummell and d’Orsay, he spent youth in a blindingly fast dissipation and had to confront a more advanced age of deprivation. (More sadly, he also died of complications relating to syphilis, as Brummell likely did.) Baudelaire spent those years not in regret, delusion or attempts to profit off of past glories, but making his own sense of a troubled and changing world. You can read him, preferably in the original, without knowing any of this history. But this personal history of reversal of fortune strikes a chime with those of us who endured our own style revolutions and 18 Brumaires, and now must treasure the few luxuries we infrequently are able to afford. It makes them all the more meaningful anyway, even if that is an apostasy of Baudelaire’s dandyism.