A dandy (also known as a beau, gallant or flamboyant person) is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies. Historically, especially in late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain, a dandy, who was self-made, often strove to imitate an aristocratic style of life despite coming from a middle-class background.
Given these connotations, dandyism can be seen as a political protestation against the rise of egalitarian principles — often including nostalgic adherence to feudal or pre-industrial values, such as the ideals of "the perfect gentleman" or "the autonomous aristocrat".
Though previous manifestations, of Alcibiades, and of the petit-maître and the muscadin have been noted by John C. Prevost, the modern practice of dandyism first appeared in the revolutionary 1790s, both in London and in Paris. The dandy cultivated skeptical reserve, yet to such extremes that the novelist George Meredith, himself no dandy, once defined "cynicism" as "intellectual dandyism"; nevertheless, the Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the great dandies of literature. Some took a more benign view; Thomas Carlyle in his book Sartor Resartus, wrote that a dandy was no more than "a clothes-wearing man".
Charles Baudelaire, in the later, "metaphysical," phase of dandyism defined the dandy as one who elevates æsthetics to a living religion, that the dandy's mere existence reproaches the responsible citizen of the middle class: "Dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism" and "These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking .... Contrary to what many thouthless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind."
In the 21st century, the word "dandy" is a jocular, often sarcastic adjective meaning "fine" or "great", while "a dandy" refers to a well-groomed, well-dressed, and self-absorbed man.
The model dandy in British society was George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778-1840), an undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, and an associate of the Prince Regent: ever unpowdered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain, dark blue coat, perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing much perfectly starched linen, all freshly laundered, and composed with an elaborately knotted cravat. From the mid 1790s, Beau Brummell was the early incarnation of 'the celebrity' man chiefly famous for being a laconically witty clothes-horse.
By the time Pitt taxed hair powder in 1795 to help pay for the war against France, Brummell had already abandoned wearing a wig, and had his hair cut in the Roman fashion, "à la Brutus". Moreover, he led the transition from breeches to snugly tailored dark "pantaloons," which directly led to contemporary trousers, the sartorial mainstay of men's clothes in the Western world for the past two centuries. In 1799, upon coming of age, Beau Brummell inherited from his father a fortune of thirty thousand pounds, which he spent mostly on costume, gambling, and high living. In 1816 he suffered bankruptcy, the dandy's stereotyped fate; he fled his creditors to France, quietly dying in 1840, in a lunatic asylum in Caen, just before age 62.
Men of more notable accomplishment than Beau Brummell also adopted the dandiacal pose: George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron occasionally dressed the part, helping re-introduce the frilled, lace-cuffed and lace-collared "poet shirt." In that spirit, he had his portrait painted in Albanian costume.
Another prominent dandy of the period was Alfred Guillaume Gabriel d'Orsay, the Count d'Orsay, who had been friends with Byron and moved in the highest social circles of London.
The beginnings of dandyism in France were bound up with the politics of the French revolution; the initial stage of dandyism, the gilded youth, was a political statement of dressing in an aristocratic style in order to distinguish its members from the sans-culottes.
During his heyday, Beau Brummell's dictat on both fashion and etiquette reigned supreme. His habits of dress and fashion were much imitated, especially in France, where, in a curious development, they became the rage, especially in bohemian quarters. There, dandies sometimes were celebrated in revolutionary terms: self-created men of consciously designed personality, radically breaking with past traditions. With elaborate dress and idle, decadent styles of life, French bohemian dandies sought to convey contempt for and superiority to bourgeois society. In the latter 19th century, this fancy-dress bohemianism was a major influence on the Symbolist movement in French literature.
Baudelaire was deeply interested in dandyism, and memorably wrote that a dandy aspirant must have "no profession other than elegance ... no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons ... The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror." Other French intellectuals also were interested in the dandies strolling the streets and boulevards of Paris. Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote The Anatomy of Dandyism, an essay devoted, in great measure, to examining the career of Beau Brummell.
The 20th century has been impatient with dandyism: the Prince of Wales, briefly Edward VIII was a dandy; it did not increase his public appeal. Nevertheless George Walden, in the essay Who's a Dandy?, identifies Noël Coward, Andy Warhol, and Quentin Crisp as modern dandies.
In Japan, dandyism became a fashion subculture during the late 1990s.
The artist, writer, and hedonist Sebastian Horsley identifies himself as a dandy, and discusses the subject at length in his biography.
Later, as the word dandy evolved to denote refinement, it became applied solely to men. Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (2003) notes this evolution in the latter 1800s: "...or dandizette, although the term was increasingly reserved for men." Female dandies became extinct and then went on to develop their own distinct philosophy, quaintrellism, apart from male influences.
Possible 19th century quaintrelles could be found in the demimonde, in such extravagant women as the courtesan Cora Pearl, while the Marchesa Luisa Casati lived a dandy's career in post–World War I Venice. Analogously, the artistic diva might be considered a quaintrelle.