by Tyne O’Connell©
The English have always been tolerant of eccentricity particularly amongst the aristocracy. The word was coined by the Ancient Greeks, ékkentros which meant “not having the earth as the centre of an orbit” – an outré idea to the Ancients who were certain the earth was at as the centre of all.
In medieval Latin, the noun and adjective eccentricus suggested whimsical and odd. To this day, when one is referred to as eccentric, it suggests one has ventured off piste in thinking or dress.
The Dandies formed a sartorial movement of gentlemen in Regency England who veered wildly off piste. They were led by Beau Brummell who cut a swathe through Regency London with his eccentric mode of dress.
Beau’s pared down masculine costume – which was the origin of today’s gentleman’s suit – was considered not just eccentric but scandalous in his day. In Regency England, and on the continent, men were flouncing about in frills and ruffles, waving handkerchiefs and speaking in high pitched squeaky lisps.
It seems extraordinary to us today that Brummell’s masculine silhouette caused such uproar, yet it did. It was only Beau’s friendship with the Prince Regent that gained his costume widespread acceptance. Ultimately his eccentric mode of dress was adopted as the uniform for all men across the continent and America and remains so to this day.
Beau’s sartorial eccentricity began as a school boy at Eton College where he introduced the starched cravat asserted with a smart gold buckle. While up at Oxford he made dingy stockings and dirty neckties a thing of the past with his starched white neck-tie. Both Eton and Oxford still maintain a whiff of the Brummell in their dress code.
The female Dandy, the Dandizette was in existence long before the Dandy. One struggles to date her beginning. Perhaps this is because women have always known that we live and die before a mirror.
In his book, “A Woman Of No Importance”, Oscar Wilde declared “Every woman is a rebel” and it strikes me that perhaps we are all rebels because we have had to be rebels simply to have a voice?
It is the rebel inside every woman that Oscar Wilde spoke of that is the key to understanding Dandizettes. For unlike the Dandy, Dandizettes are not defined by their dress but their use of dress, makeup and decoration as a means to express ideas.
Crucially for women, fashion has historically been a means of expressing our ideas, most notably in those times when we have been denied a voice.
Throughout history when men have wanted to oppress women they have forbidden us makeup, jewels and flamboyant dress. During Cromwell’s rule, 1649 -1658 his soldiers roamed the streets looking for transgressive women whom they would hold down while their faces were publicly scrubbed of makeup so vigorously that they bled. Women could even be put in stocks for daring to wear make-up.
In 1660 when King Charles II returned to England ushering in the Restoration and a golden age for the arts, tolerance towards religion, shopping, decadence and ideas, women took full opportunity to take the stage both literally and figuratively.
The Restoration of King Charles II was a turning point for Britain and women, marking the end of the Medieval and beginning of the Modern Age.
King Charles II was educated on the Continent by one of the first Bluestockings, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess Of Newcastle and her husband.
Margaret Cavendish was a writer and scientist held in high regard by her husband who was in charge of the education of the young King in exile. Contrary to the view in England at the time King Charles was educated to view women not merely decorative playthings for men, but intelligent beings with thoughts of their own.
The Restoration was revolutionary for all Britons but especially for women. Suddenly after the dark years of Cromwell’s tyranny, women could be writers, spies, scientists, academics. For the first time in British history women were legally allowed to perform on stage. The Restoration was an age of tolerance and decadence but most importantly it was also the Golden Age of The Dandizette personified by the dawning of The Mayfair Bluestockings.
Women writers thinkers and actresses flourished during the Restoration. One of the most notable of these restoration women was Aphra Behn (1640-1689) spy, prolific author and playwright wrote had more plays produced in the West End than Dryden.
Aphra was a prolific writer and spied for both King Charles and his father but more outrageously she dared to openly declare that she wanted to be famous for her writing going so far as to describe herself as “a scribe for hire”.
It was this unabashed immodest desire for fame for her writing that led to her massive volume of work largely being ignored until Virginia Wolf rediscovered her.
Now Buried in Westminster Abbey, Virginia Wolfe said of her “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
The Bluestockings – so named not because they wore blue stockings, but because they permitted a man who did – Benjamin Stillingfleet to attend their Mayfair salons.
The Mayfair Bluestocking Salon were made up of aristocratic women and a few like minded gents who met in the informal salons hosted in their Mayfair and St James’s house to discuss education for women, literature, music, the arts and dangerous ideas.
The grand residences of the London area of Mayfair and St James’s flew up after the Great Fire Of London of 1666 burned down the Old Roman Walled City of London. The King moved his court to St James’s Palace which had been erected by Henry VIII and the gentry followed.
Over breakfasts and in the evenings, often in their bedrooms the Mayfair Bluestocking Salons began to gather a reputation on the continent. The great philosopher and woman of letters, Madame De Stael came over to see what the fuss was about attending a Mayfair Bluestocking Salon tea parties. Tea was the newly fashionable drink introduced to Britain by King Charle’s II’s Portugese and Roman Catholic wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza.
Like Dandies, the Dandizettes congregated in the area of Mayfair and St James’s which remains their spiritual home.
The plaques on buildings in this area attest to their prevalence in the area from Lord Byron’s daughter the mathematician Countess Lovelace to Nancy Mitford the author and wit.
Unlike Dandies, Dandizettes do not have a codified costume but used their clothing and accessories to express or symbolise their ideas. The Dandizettes were thinkers rather than sartorial exquisites like the Dandies. The earliest dandizettes were characterised by the dangerous ideas that flourished under the cheeky hats perched on their tresses.
The Duchess of Richmond, a prominent member of the Restoration Court of King Charles II was the model for the image of Britannia which still graces our fifty pence coin today. She sat for her portrait in a studio in St James’s in 1665; he shield she holds a constant reminder of women’s need to protect ourselves and our ideas from the barbs of men.
English Eccentrics – The Dandy & Dandizette