Clothes make the man

By GREG COOK  |  May 13, 2013

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LEGENDARY LACES Warhol's Ferragamo shoes.

It's this dandyism that RISD curators Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer highlight with 18th- and 19th-century Middle Eastern-inspired robes; a 19th-century seersucker suit; a three-piece tweed suit by Dashing Tweeds designed in 2002 for bicycling. It's fashion as individualism and rebellion that they showcase via Andy Warhol's 1960s gray wig, white Brooks Brothers cotton shirts, and paint-speckled Ferragamo shoes; Tom Wolfe's 1980s Southern-style cream three-piece suit and cape by New York tailor Vincent Nicolosi; and John Waters's purple and black suit by Comme des Garcons from the 2000s.

Most remarkable is Daniele Tamagni's 2008 photo of a gentleman in a salmon-colored suit and red bowler strutting down a gritty street in the Republic of Congo's capital Brazzaville. He's a Sapeur, short for the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and People of Elegance), that arose there in the 1960s, mixing bespoke European menswear with hot African colors. It signifies the lifestyle they aspire to and an attempt to rise above the fray of their troubled nation. But it's also a reactionary move to adopt high European fashion just as Africa was being liberated from European colonial rule.

Dandies add color, pattern, and winking playfulness. But unlike women's fashion, which twists and explodes dress styles, the cut of dandy suits remains pretty uniform through these two centuries, indicating the rigidity of men's style.

The most radical aspect of this metrosexual peacockery remains its gender bending — from femme dudes to ladies like Michael Strange (aka Blanche Oelrichs), Romaine Brooks, Patti Smith, and Diane Keaton dressing in conservative black and white men's suits. It's no accident that dandies have been branded as effeminate for two centuries. Dandyism's prettiness defies traditional machismo. The clothes propose a new definition of the man.

Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.

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