Observations on Beau Brummell” (1845)
Barbey D'Aurevilly writes about Beau Brummell, the most important dandy of the nineteenth century, with a complete awareness of Brummell's “mythical” status. The factual details of the real Beau Brummell are irrelevant; all that matters is the legend built around the figure. D'Aurevilly's essay reveals a profound appreciation of how important the manipulation of appearances can be. Surface matters most to the career of a dandy, and as D'Aurevilly declares, Brummell was the master who set the standard for the rest of the century: “His entire life was an influence.”
For all his pithy formulations, D'Aurevilly understands the dialectics of social control. For all the influence Brummell exercised on elite English society, he was at the same time a strict conformist. He set the standard for modern masculine attire by insisting that the elegant man remain inconspicuous at all times. To stand out, one must blend in. Brummell practiced this rule to perfection until his final insult to the Prince of Wales, which quickly resulted in Brummell's bankruptcy and exile. At the height of his fame, Brummell could adhere to the codes of convention while setting new standards that everyone else scrambled to imitate. This paradox of conformity and control at the very center of fashionable society reminds one of Norbert Elias's claim that Louis XIV was the most strictly regulated person at Versailles even though he set the standards his court was forced to follow.
The parallels between the ostentatious king and the understated dandy show how fashion, even in its subdued modern forms, retains a calculated showiness inherited from the baroque court. D'Aurevilly distinguishes between English vanity and the kind practiced by cosmopolitan Frenchmen. In his opening meditation on vanity, he invokes Mandeville's earlier praise for the same vice as well as Voltaire's own defense of worldliness. The difference between the two forms of vanity, according to D'Aurevilly, is that the English dandy has no real political or economic power supporting his vanity; he favors himself for no good reason