Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The dandy is in the detail

Meccanoid website launch, Melbourne, 9 June 2006. Image from NowNow Pics.

Last week I was catching up on my reading and noticed that Roland Barthes was not in fact killed by a laundry truck in 1980, because he had written this article for The Age. But it turns out Barthes is freelancing from beyond the grave, as this is an extract from a new collected volume of essays entitled Roland Barthes: The Language of Fashion. I find it compelling and heartening that Barthes, the godfather of semiotics, was overwhelmed by the prospect of studying street style. As The Australian remarks:

Said Barthes: "Originally I had planned to study real clothing, worn by everyone in the street. I gave up." He protested that fashion was too complex - "it deploys a number of 'substances': the material, photography, language" - and the science of its analysis was too young.

And so this pioneer had decided to confine himself to the study of a single, pure substance: "fashion clothing as it is refracted through the written language of specialist magazines".

But I am interested in the subject of the Age extract: Barthes's thoughts on the phenomenon of the dandy art of dress. When we think of dandies, we think of a historical yet strangely a-historicised phenomenon. It's historical because there is a commonsense understanding that dandies are supposed to look 'old-fashioned'; yet it's a-historicised because people tend to associate dandyishness with an over the top, camp fashion aesthetic, when during the height of the dandy phenomenon in the late 18th and early 19th century, these OTT fellas were more likely to be fops.

But it's deliberate that I've including this picture of the spastic hipster looking what many people would call "dandyish". Because I want to mull over whether there is something dandyish about hipsters: in the way they fetishise aesthetic individualism; in the way the dandy was said to cultivate a detached and sceptical manner, much as hipsters are identified with a relentless irony. I was struck by the observation made by the novelist George Meredith, who once defined cynicism as "intellectual dandyism".

However, Barthes makes it clear that he is bracketing the rest of dandy culture and concentrating solely on the clothes. First, he talks about the notion of distinction and what it implies for the 'reading' of clothes.

A distinguished man is a man who marks himself off from the crowd using modest means, but it is a means whose power, which is a kind of energy, is immense. Since, on the one hand, his aim is to be recognised only by his peers, and on the other, this recognition relies essentially on details, the distinguished man adds to the uniform of his century a number of discreet signs (that is, those that are both barely visible and yet not in keeping with the outfit), which are no longer spectacular signs of a condition that is openly adopted but the simple signs of a tacit agreement. Indeed, distinction takes the signalling aspect of clothes down a semi-clandestine path: for, on the one hand, the group that reads its signs is a limited one, on the other the signs necessary for this reading are rare and, without a particular knowledge of the new vestimentary language, perceptible only with difficulty.
At first this reads like a very straightforward, Bourdieuian analysis (and bear in mind that Bourdieu was probably conducting his first Parisian fieldwork while Barthes was writing): a distinguished man distinguishes himself through the cultural capital that determines his tastes. But Barthes is gesturing towards a distinction that is a relation between insiders: one that "classifies the classifier" in the sense that only insiders can recognise the process of classification itself.

The dandy [...] is a man who has decided to radicalise the distinction in men's clothing by subjecting it to an absolute logic. Dandyism is not only an ethos but also a technique. The dandy is condemned to invent continually distinctive traits that are ever novel: sometimes he relies on wealth to distance himself from the poor, other times he wants his clothes to look worn out to distance himself from the rich - this is precisely the job of the "detail", which is to allow the dandy to escape the masses and never to be engulfed by them; his singularity is absolute in essence, but limited in substance, as he must never fall into eccentricity, for that is an eminently copyable form.

The dandy's clothes are based around a semiotic building block that Barthes calls the "detail". For the dandy continually strives not only to be "other" but also to be alone in his otherness (unlike a subculture, which aims for collective otherness). It is this "detail" that enables such pure distinction. And it is in the (at least theoretical) infinity of singularity that dandies can identify each other. They are recognising each other's thoughtful originality: the precision and subtlety of each other's sartorial signatures. They are not identifying with the other's stylistic similarities, but with the other's stylistic differences.

But in practice, writes Barthes, the "detail" was not absolutely singular, and the rise of ready-to-wear clothing struck dandyism a fatal blow.

But, more subtly, what ruined dandyism for good, was the birth of "original" boutiques; these boutiques sold clothes and accessories that were not part of mass culture; but because this exclusivity was part of commerce, albeit within the luxury sector, it become itself normative: by buying a shirt, a tie or cufflinks at X or at Z, one was conforming to a certain style, and abdicating all personal (one might say narcissistic) invention of singularity.
I am interested in Barthes's insistence that "once limited to the freedom to buy (but not to create), dandyism could not but suffocate and die". He's suggesting that the creativity in consumption is not sufficient to sustain the extreme singularity required by dandyism.

What really interests me is Barthes's specific example of the boutique. Boutiques perform a weird balancing act between originality and homogeneity. There are the high-end boutiques specialising in prestigious ready-to-wear labels, like Le Louvre in Melbourne. The advantage of going to such places is the personalised service and the access to exclusive high-end merchandise not available elsewhere. Then there are 'branded' boutiques that sell an idiosyncratic house style or label, like Biba and SEX/World's End, or to give some Melbourne examples, Quick Brown Fox and Frauhaus. These seem to have their own signature: a certain kind of 'look' that is homogenous.

Then there are the most interesting sort (and the most relevant to hipsters), which are effectively a collection of niches: they source small-run artisanal labels that would otherwise be hard to buy unless you went straight to the designer. Melbourne examples include Fat, Alice Euphemia and Bobby's Cuts. Now these places also offer a kind of stylistic consonance: in the past I've condemned Alice Euphemia for selling "sheltered workshop clothes"; and Bobby's Cuts specialises in a more tailored kind of rock-star wear featuring skinny ties, vests, what have you.

So, does this mean that someone who shops at such boutiques is not a dandy? Well, yes and no. Of course more than one hipster will take a liking to the same "detail", and they might even (quelle horreur!) spot each other at a record label launch wearing the same "detail". But I think that, rather than destroy originality, this inevitability creates a baroque style. When I talk about the 'baroque', I mean the intricate and detailed repetition of a particular stylistic motif such that it becomes something distinct from the original. And I think it's this baroqueness, rather than the absolute singularity of his or her clothing, that marks a hipster.

These two fellows were photographed at Misshapes in New York on 10 and 17 June 2006. They are wearing essentially the same outfit: boxy casual jacket; dress shirt; skinny tie; subtle jewellery (badges, necklaces); skinny jeans. But they've managed enough variations on the outfit to make the look their own. And importantly, the constituent elements of the look are not stylistically consonant. There is no way they can have obtained the entire outfit from the one store: it requires bricolage.

I included these two because of the startling similarity of their outfits. Fitted V-necked t-shirt in which the neckline cuts into the print; necklace on a long dangly chain; Mick Jagger rock hair and stagey posing. Their baroqueness is of the crudest and laziest kind; but nevertheless they are performing the same process of subcultural distinction that Barthes describes. The tiny differences between their outfits and those of a man who's bought his entire outfit from a high-street chain like Industrie or General Pants "are both barely visible and yet not in keeping with the outfit". There is just enough detail (the necklaces, the t-shirt prints) to mark them as hipsters, and to enable them to recognise each other as hipsters.

Ultimately, I don't think this post answers the question of whether hipsters are contemporary dandies. But I think it's valuable to be able to identify what it is about someone's clothing -- someone who isn't necessarily dressed in a spectacular, subcultural way -- that nevertheless allows us to categorise them. I also think Barthes's theory of the detail gives us a point of access into the processes by which we all assert our individuality. Perhaps the hipster has more perceived individuality at stake than most of us. And perhaps that's an interesting perspective itself: the idea of the hipster as a person disaffected with the death of dandyism, and attempting to reassert its lost singularity in the baroque ways that are enabled by contemporary consumer culture.


Glen Fuller said...

very very interesting, mel!!!

i spend the fourth paragraph of my first chapter of my thesis explaining what a 'headturner' is in modified-car culture. it is precisely this singularity in thesense of the dandy that Barthes isolates.

However, can I make a suggestion, regarding the nature of this singularity? it is something I have thought about a lot, and it is what I call the problem of scale when dealing with events (whenever there is a singularity there is an event).

The 'spectacular' dimension to subcultures is another singularity on a different scale than the that of the micro-scale singularity of the individual dandy. This is an incredibly important point because although subcultures are collective (as you say), they are also limited and involve relations of alterity (othering, identity, belonging, etc). By thinking this spectacular scale of subcultures as a singularity it transforms 'subculture' itself into an event, just like the dandy in the street.

the point of my thesis is I refuse to give up on the complexity of this subcultural scale event, sure I use the magazines, because they have a privileged place in the 'assemblage' -- all the material, immaterial, enthusiasms, etc.

Mel said...

Okay, are you saying that spectacularity is a property of the collective nature of subcultures? One punk is not as spectacular as a crowd of punks?

Or are you saying that the collective is singular, and that's what makes it spectacular?

Or are you saying that ther spectacularity is singular, in that each subculture is spectacular in its own singular way?

Anonymous said...

good stuff.

two things:

Barthes: "[I]n a given historical situation--of pessimism and rejection--it is the intellectual class as a whole which, if it does not become militant, is virtually a dandy"

Me: Only fight fashion wars, muthafukkas!

Mel said...

It's just occurred to me that I might be overstating the importance of bricolage in creating baroque styles. Because in one sense, the boutique is doing the bricolage for you: it is possible to buy an entire outfit from one place, as long as the owners of that shop have an eclectic selection. And indeed, bricolage has 'failed' if the outfit is semiotically coherent: that is, if you can look at someone and know exactly how to put together the same look yourself.