Requiem for the Male Peacock.

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by Petunia Winegum on July 30, 2014

Watching ‘Rebels of Oz’, Howard Jacobson’s BBC4 profile of four artistic Aussies who made a sizeable contribution to the cultural renaissance of the 60s and 70s, archive film of the late art critic Robert Hughes in velvet jacket, frilly shirt and shoulder-length hair reminded me that the brief revival of the male peacock during this flamboyantly fruitful period was something that spread way beyond the Carnabetian confines of the youthquake that kick-started the revival in the first place. While considerable coverage is afforded all the young dudes whose embrace of self-expression via their wardrobes liberated them from their fathers’ season-ticket at Burton’s, the impact this sartorial revolution had on previous generations is often overlooked.

Two of the most high-profile representatives of this Third Wave of Dandyism could be located on early 70s British TV screens: Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who and Peter Wyngarde as Jason King. Both men had been around long before it was legitimate to release their inner peacock; when Pertwee became the successor to Patrick Troughton in 1969, he was fifty; when Wyngarde landed the part that made him a household name in ITC’s ‘Department S’ around the same time, he was forty – and this in an era when the teenage mantra was to never trust anyone over thirty. Although Wyngarde’s penchant for the occasional rendezvous with lorry drivers was still unknown to the general public when he was cutting a dashing swathe across the schedules, both he and the unswervingly heterosexual Pertwee were bringing a look to the masses that barely a decade before had been the province of a small, secluded and understandably secretive gay clique largely centred around Soho. Quentin Crisp had been parading through London’s Naughty Square Mile since the 30s, defiantly advertising his sexuality via his striking appearance and regularly bearing the scars of his encounters with those who didn’t share his aesthetic perspective. He was still doing so in his sixties, when Pertwee and Wyngarde were sharing screen-time with mini-skirted dolly-birds and proving a Dandy didn’t automatically equate with effeminacy in the brave new world of the Sexual Revolution.

In historical terms, the man had always been the peacock, whereas the woman was as much a visual appendage as she was in every other respect. In the late eighteenth century, however, the female of the species began to seriously compete with her male counterpart for the first time; at the point when the foppish extravagance of the ‘Macaroni’, with his heavily-powdered countenance, outlandish wigs and gaily-embroidered jackets and breeches, reached a peak of Glam excess that wouldn’t be seen again for another two-hundred years, the women adopted his glittering template and gave it a feminine twist, resulting in the debut of the ‘Beehive’ hairstyle and the deliberately dysfunctional hoop skirt – articles that served no useful purpose other than they looked breathtaking, a legacy that is still with us via that infamous pair of shoes every modern woman owns that were purchased to be looked at rather than worn.

When the original Dandy emerged in the early nineteenth century, he perceived himself as a stripped-down and streamlined counterpoint to the Fop; rivalries between the two were not unlike those between the Mods and the Rockers in the 1960s. At a time when even mainstream male fashion included the ‘pigtail’ wrapped in ribbons, the Dandy dispensed with the excessive baggage of his predecessor, most notably the powdered peruke that now had uncomfortable connotations with the wig-wearing heads that had a come a cropper during their date with Madame Guillotine. Beau Brummell, unofficial fashion adviser to the Prince Regent, was the undisputed arbiter of this style, and his fastidious attention to a less-cluttered ensemble eventually paved the way for the more recognisable contours of the suit. However, although the Dandy as a ‘youth cult’ disappeared with the passing of the Regency, its traces lingered in male dress for decades. Prominent Victorians such as Charles Dickens may wear the solemn scowl of the bearded moral crusader in famous photographs, but Dickens was notorious in his youth for his dandified dress sense, particularly his dazzling waistcoats; and even when colours became less vivid and more uniformly ‘masculine’ in the second half of the nineteenth century, Victorian men – even the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli – still retained a hint of the Dandy via their luxuriant locks and ambitious whiskers, whereas floppy-haired aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde gave it a fresh new angle. A shaven-head was the mark of a malcontent such as Magwitch from ‘Great Expectations’.

The Edwardian era was the last hurrah for the Dandy in the public spotlight until the 1960s; actor Patrick MacNee, who portrayed the stylish secret-agent John Steed in ‘The Avengers’, has described his own father as an Edwardian Dandy, and one of the less-recognised casualties of the Great War (albeit an admittedly trivial one) was the male peacock. Short back-and-sides was the new military haircut for the army that had jettisoned the traditional scarlet uniform for camouflage khaki, and not getting one’s hair cut was almost regarded as unpatriotic. For the following half-century only women had a licence to express their more extrovert natures via what they wore, whereas short hair and sober dress were redefined as a compulsory masculine statement, which explains the initial outrage that greeted the rude arrival of the Rolling Stones in 1964 – not to mention persistent questions surrounding their sexuality from a generation who associated a fondness for sartorial adventure with ‘queers’. But when the youth took their visual cues from the likes of Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Dave Davies and Jimi Hendrix, the re-emergence of the Dandy as a viable cultural force had wholly unexpected consequences. Even when the youth discarded their Carnaby Street glad-rags and morphed into the studied scruffiness of the hippy, the Dandy continued to command a high profile as it was assimilated into the wardrobes of those too old to have been part of the Swinging scene.

1970s TV adaptations of classic nineteenth century novels are notable for the fact that few of the male actors in them required wigs or false sideburns, for most already had the hair and whiskers; even the authentic fashions necessary for the part could easily have been items they walked off-set wearing. Outside of drama productions, many television presenters thought nothing of wearing colourful neckerchiefs to discuss serious subjects, underlining how the male peacock had been successfully absorbed into the mainstream again. The Year Zero bombshell of Punk effectively ended this Third Wave of Dandyism, however – a peasant’s revolt that tore down the decadent symbols of the old order; and though it occasionally resurfaced in short-lived youth cults and the odd imaginative pop star, the Dandy was dead. Despite horrible media buzzwords such as ‘Metrosexual’ to define men who actually reject the T-shirt, jeans and trainers slob ensemble, any 21st century boy who cares about his appearance usually dons nothing more flamboyant than a well-tailored suit. And with the preference for blending in with the crowd rather than standing out from it more prevalent than ever in an age of superstitious finger-pointing, the 1970s are mocked as well as reviled because men were given carte-blanche to break free of the fashion straitjacket that continues to render them wary and fearful of competing with their visually emancipated wives and girlfriends. But, of course, this is progress – isn’t it?

©Petunia Winegum


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