Dandy is a sadly abused word.
Expressing sometimes admiration, often derision, one thing it almost never
conveys is an informed speaker. Dandy, like the terms deconstruction,
mannerism, or quirky single, is something academics call
“overdetermined”— a word put to so many uses that it
has become nearly meaningless. With each repetition of these buzzwords,
it becomes less and less clear that we know what we are talking about.
So what do we mean when we say dandy? Everyone
knows it has something to do with clothes, but after that it gets fuzzy.
For Brummell it meant the thorough gentleman, exceptional only in the
extraordinary perfection of his ordinariness. For d’Aurevilly and
Baudelaire, the dandy was another face of the Romantic artist, for whom
clothes were the outward display of an imperious soul. For aesthetes like
Wilde and Saki, it embodied the triumph of taste over the banality of
convention. For Beerbohm it was the perfection of self-control. We might
repeat here what has famously been said of pornography: “I can’t
tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.”