The fop was the Enlightenment (1600–1800) forerunner of the dandy, a man known for an attention to dress and fashion bordering on the absurd. The term originally meant fool, appearing in English as early as 1440; by the eighteenth century it signified a vain man who was foolishly devoted to his own appearance above all else. The stereotype of the fop involved extravagantly expensive clothes made of the finest materials, cut in the latest and most daring styles. Fops wore elaborate wigs, makeup, and shoes, and took every opportunity to display themselves.
Fops were real-life characters as well as theatrical and literary ones. They were associated with places of public display, such as courts and theaters, so much so that the center of the pit in opera houses was sometimes called Fop's alley. Fops were associated with fashion, manners, the aristocracy, and all things French; Molière's (1622–1673) play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme [The would-be gentleman] (1670) is a fop stereotype, a middle-class social climber so eager to impress his aristocratic friends with his clothes, dancing, and money that he makes a spectacle of himself. His attention to dress is so exaggerated that even his own servants are unable to control the violent fits of laughter he inspires.
Part of the comedic effect of the fop is that he is a man with no sense of moderation or of his natural station. He is a bourgeois who thinks he can be an aristocrat, and is a man with a woman's attention to fashion and manners. Repudiating the sober virtues of middle-class masculinity, he violates boundaries of both class and gender. His mincing effeminacy parodies both the effeteness of the upper classes of his era and the stupidity of a merchant class that craves their approval; the moral lesson his stereotype teaches is that aping the values of the womanish upper classes emasculates bourgeois men and makes them foolish.
In the nineteenth century the fop became the dandy. As does the fop the dandy emulates the aristocracy. Unlike the fop the dandy affects nonchalance, reserve, and even cynicism so as to not appear to be trying quite so hard. The most famous dandy of all was George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778–1840), a friend of the British Prince Regent (George, Prince of Wales, who became King George IV [r. 1820–1830] after the 1829 demise of George III [r. 1760–1820]). Brummell, from the 1790s until his death, embodied the relentlessly immaculate stereotype of the well-dressed man. He may have discovered fashion as a method of social resistance when he and his cadre of fashionable friends abandoned the practice of wearing powdered wigs and hair in response to Prime Minister William Pitt's (1759–1806) 1795 tax on hair powder. Not only was wearing powder expensive, it was going out of fashion by the time Pitt introduced his tax; Brummell was then in the military and thus required by its dress code to powder his hair. No doubt this annoyed him, and he quit powder and the military in the same moment, adopting a style of disputably Roman haircuts that were all the rage in a gesture of fashionable resistance, thus resisting fashion's terms through fashion's means. This would be the beginning of a lifelong devotion to appearance that would come to define his identity and place in history.
Thus, Brummell was so well-turned out as to be a spectacle. There was nothing outlandish about his dress or his manner; in fact, he was known for his reticence. But a man dressed so carefully as to call attention to himself makes a theatrical event out of the everyday habit of men's dress, raising it to the level of sublime performance and even parody. Cultural critics see Brummell as the precursor of the decadents and aesthetes of the late nineteenth century and the mods and punks of the twentieth. His careful arrangement of his person was so proper as to constitute a rebuke. Such extreme attention rises to the level of the parodic and can be read paradoxically as both the highest emulation of aristocratic masculinity and a critique of its excess.
Later versions of the dandy, such as the mods and teddy boys, whose Carnaby Street frock coats and trousers revived Edwardian fashion in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, were similarly fanatical about perfect attire. Unlike Brummell, whose father left him a fortune to squander, most mods and teddy boys were working class, and their appropriation of men's styles critiqued the class assumptions that equated a tailored appearance with wealth, education, and other cultural advantages unavailable to most of them. As with Brummell their adherence to the dictates of fashion were so precise and so perfect as to be over the top. The take on culture signified by their clothes and attitude helped constitute a subcultural group of young men who could show their rejection of the terms of upward mobility by appropriating its terms for themselves.
Dandies have often been viewed as homosexual, in part because such extreme attention to appearance is often read as narcissistic, in part because a fixation on clothes appears fetishistic, and in part because one of the most famous homosexual of the early modern era, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), was himself a dandy in his youth. His literary creation, Dorian Gray, is also a dandy, as is the friend who seduces Gray into a life of epicurean indulgences, Lord Henry Wotton. Dandyism does not have a fixed sexuality, although many modern dandies were also gay men, such as Noel Coward (1899–1973), Quentin Crisp (1980–1999), and Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Metrosexuals may be contemporary dandies, with their ambiguous sexualities and fine attention to male attire and masculine accessories. In an age increasingly dominated by dandyish Hollywood leading men, the parodic power of dandified dress may be on the wane. However, since his first appearance as a fop, the dandy has reinvented himself in every new fashion era and no doubt will do so again soon, on his own terms.
see also Effeminacy.
Hebdige, Dick. 1981. Subculture, The Meaning of Style. Oxford: Routledge.
Kelley, Ian. 2006. Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style New York: Free Press.
Moers, Ellen. 1978. The Dandy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.