Daria Kerschenbaum is an asexual writer and artist working in New York City. You can follow her on Instagram @Daria_Kersch.
“The dandy serves to illuminate the oft-overlooked possibility of asexuality and celibacy as queer modes of living.” — Karli June Cerankowski
Dandies appeared on the page, stage, and European streets beginning in the nineteenth century, reaching into the twentieth century. Although these men were slaves to fashion, they pioneered a new mode of queer expression still emulated today, both in gender expression and in lifestyle. Here we’re exploring the dandy lifestyle as queer––not solely homosexual––with a particular focus on the dandy as asexual, an often ignored historical possibility. We’ll also take a closer look at the similarities between the dandy lifestyle, nonbinary gender expression, and asexuality.
The dandy was both a figure in literature, a style of dress, as well as a sort of lifestyle. Across all of these mediums, he was characterized first and foremost as a purveyor of high fashion. He was elegant, sophisticated, and snobbish, taking on amplified staples of the bourgeoisie. As Thomas Carlyle so famously wrote, “A Dandy is a clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.” These men were known for their material indulgence and extensive primping, as well as their theatrical nature. Some famous historical figures considered to be dandies include Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, Salvador Dali, and Oscar Wilde.
The dandy lifestyle required hours devoted to shopping, styling, and pampering of the self. These behaviors were not initially associated with femininity, but rather vanity. He worshipped himself through improving his appearance. In many ways, the dandy was the object of his own affections.
It is important to note that the dandy, even as purely a movement in fashion, was revolutionary. The dandy created his own aesthetic independent of the rest of society. To dress in this way played the dandy in opposition to the rest of society. Knowing this, it is easy to see why the dandy was poised in the perfect position to challenge his world’s views on gender and sexuality.
But why is dandyism so tied to homosexuality in particular? This change began to occur in the late nineteenth century, spurred by a shift in the burgeoning psychological community. James Adams writes in Dandies and Desert Saints that deviant forms of masculinity were pathologized only after sexuality entered wider scientific discourse. In the case of the dandy, this meant the beginning of the association between effeminacy and homosexuality.
Additionally, public events that occurred during this time period enforced this now common interpretation. Oscar Wilde was famous for his flamboyant dandyism, going on lecture tours on the subject of aestheticism. His quote, “One should either be a work of Art or wear a work of Art," quickly became emblematic of the ideology. But it was Wilde’s arrest and his very public trials in 1895 that truly forged an association between gayness, sexualization, and the dandy movement. These events solidified homosexuality both as a word as well as a concept, ever linked to Wilde’s trademark style.
One popular interpretation of the dandy’s characteristics helped to solidify this interpretation. Professed dandies cultivated a generally disdainful persona. But the dandy expressed particular contempt towards women. Deborah Houk of the University of Pennsylvania Press describes the dandy as possessing a “virulent misogyny”. She points to Baudelaire’s diary as an example, citing his quote, “La femme est le contraire du Dandy. Donc elle doit faire horreur.” Historians have often used this detail of the dandy lifestyle to conclude that the dandy is solely homosexual in nature. Modern historians are now taking a different approach to this sentiment, as we will explore later.
The oversimplification of dandy identity is an all too common phenomenon in historical research. After all, it was and still remains an all too common phenomenon for many individuals in their lives. However, with a current understanding of gender and sexual identity, with its many nuances and intricacies, we can recognize the dandy as a distinctly queer figure.
The dandy lifestyle included several aspects of queer identities. His nonconformity to a gender binary reminds us of modern trans identities, and his celibate tendencies and attitude towards attraction is similar to today’s asexuality.
In numerous historical accounts and literature, dandies are described as intensely theatrical beings. This description frames the dandy and his masculinity as performative. In this way, gender to him is nothing more than a costume that can be easily taken on and taken off. The dandy, therefore, bears striking resemblance to nonbinary expression. This is also reinforced by the fact that, the dandy expressed a wide range of gendered behaviors and traits. Needless to say, the dandy certainly challenged society’s notions of masculinity and femininity.
But before the late nineteenth century, the dandy was primarily thought to be a celibate character, displaying traits emblematic of asexuality. This possibility has been dismissed partly because of the popularity of the dandy-as-homosexual historical interpretation. It also partly due to the hypersexualization of the queer community. Still, there remains a strong correspondence between the dandy lifestyle of the past and our current understanding of asexuality.
The dandy’s fundamental distaste for women does not lend itself to a solely homosexual reading. Alternatively, Houk suggests that the dandy’s disgust is more suggestive of “an aversion to reproduction” or a distaste for sex. Through this lens, the dandy becomes more of a celibate figure whose transgressive masculinity creates distance between himself and the rest of society. This is not to imply that all dandies refrained from sexual activity. In fact, several prominent characters of the dandy literary movement do partake in sex. Samuel Cramer from Baudelaire’s Fanfarlo is a prime example. However, when these characters do engage in sexual activity, they are markedly interested in their partners’ costume of femininity (68-69). In these examples, the dandy did not experience sexual attraction, rather he is attracted to a particular aesthetic.
The concept of aesthetic attraction today appears frequently in online asexual communities, appearing beside other asexual modes of attraction like emotional or sensual attraction. Asexual Outreach defines the phenomenon as “an attraction towards a person’s surface level attributes that is not necessarily connected to sexual, romantic, or platonic desires” (10). This description bears resemblance to the dandy figure and his sexual behavior, helping us to better understand his queerness.
Asexual researcher Karli June Cerankowski expands on the idea of the asexual dandy in her own work. Cerankowski emphasizes that the dandy’s ability to subvert expectations of lifestyle and allowed him to subvert expectations about relationships themselves. The dandy identity was built on transgression, after all. And while it is generally assumed that the dandy is queer due to some experience of homosexual desire, the “possibilities of not desiring sex” are queer in and of themselves; asexual relationships are societal transgressions and escape definition much like queerness.
Furthermore, the dandy’s efforts to make oneself the object of one’s owns affections give the lifestyle an explicitly asexual connotation. He was faithful to fashion and fashion alone. In this way, he devoted himself and his body––the canvas of his Art––to an otherworldly force. He could care less for the other earthly pleasures that surrounded him. The dandy lifestyle was, by its nature, queer. His attributes lent themselves to gay, nonbinary, and asexual interpretation. The dandy was far more revolutionary and nuanced than the foppish fool society once consigned him to be.
The dandy is a historical character defined by his contradictions. He was sophisticated and well-mannered, yet he rebelled against high society; he adapted feminine style and tastes, yet he scorned womanhood; he celebrated the decadent and material, and yet he practiced celibacy. These many paradoxes are what draw so many of us to the dandy. He accomplished what so many of queer-identifying people desire, to live between the lines of society in full color. If we can learn anything from this man of fashion, it is to circumvent definition and to do so with flair.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Adams, James Eli. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Manhood. New York: Cornell UP, 1995.
Asexual Outreach. Ace Inclusion Guide For High Schools. 1st ed. Asexual Outreach, 2015. Print.
Cerankowski, Karli June. "Queer Dandy Style: The Cultural Politics of Tim Gunn's Asexuality." Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1/2, Spring/Summer 2013, p. 226.
Houk, Deborah. "Self Construction And Sexual Identity In Nineteenth-Century French Dandyism." French Forum 22.1 (1998): 59-73. Print.
Kaye, Jeremy. "Twenty-First-Century Victorian Dandy: What Metrosexuality and the Heterosexual Matrix Reveal about Victorian Men." Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 42, no. 1, Feb. 2009, pp. 103-125.