Suit jacket worn by Richard Merkin, 1968. F. L. Dunne and Company, tailor, New York and Boston, est. ca. 1910. Wool twill weave. Gift of Richard Merkin. RISD Museum, Providence.
Exhaustive yet exhilarating, RISD Museum's Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion left me folding my sleeve cuffs and looking back at the glass doors of the museum to examine my own rain-proof outfitting, not out of nerve or vanity but inspired by a heightened sense of pride and identity in how I had clothed myself. I imagined a higher collar kissing my neckline and even an intricately woven tweed coat, perhaps sewed with reflective thread to keep me visible on my bike ride back to the west side of the city. This exhibition has a potential, if not a guarantee, to transform and enliven, refresh or reiterate the idea that through fashion, one can really affirm a sense of identity, artistry and apostasy that grows from far beneath the surface of popular fashion culture fed atop glossy pages.
Exhibition curators Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer introduce us to the rebelliously styled figure, a cross-generational one who's eminence claims 200 years of male identity, with the “original dandy” George Bryan “Beau” Brummell. Through his labored and tailored look, Brummell carved the way for an accessible and democratized form of expression and uninhibited self-identity for the man who may not have been dealt the card to princedom. Though his acts as an origin story for the dandy, it is Richard Merkin, former RISD faculty and dandy that acts as the “heart” of the exhibition. His presence at RISD and in their collections lends a familiar and accessible sentiment to something that often distances itself from the every man through runway staging and the like.
This feeling is furthered by the use of non-linear narrative – the show is not a chronological survey of the evolution or development of the dandy. By separating the dandy into distinct secondary groupings within the exhibition-Revolutionaries, Romantics, Explorers, Connoisseurs and Historians- Irvin and Brewer offer the opportunity to create fellowships between the exquisite ensembles and their wearers. Take, for example, an 1880's black and white stripe seersucker worn by Boston-based leather merchant James Woolson hanging next to a similar cotton, orange striped seersucker worn by Nathaniel Adams in 2011. While the surfaces of each differ distinctly, presenting the breadth of direction a fabric can take, each feels immediately contemporary. An intricately patterned 1780s banyan (a printed cotton night gown) worn by cavort of Beau Brummell, the Prince of Wales, a madder-red, Indian style paisley robe worn by painter William Trost Richards circa 1860, and a 2012 ensemble styled by Motofumi “Poggy” Kogi, a collaboration between Liberty of London and Hello Kitty, presented next to each other celebrate the explorer-dandy across generations and cultures.
Motofumi“Poggy” Kogi suit on far left with Richards' robe and Prince of Walesbanyan in foreground. Installationimage of Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion, on view April 28–August18, 2013. Courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.
The presence of outfits worn by legendary figures... Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and Fred Astaire to name just a few, gives us an odd sense of familiarity and proximity. You can imagine Wolfe traversing a cobblestone street under the Nicolosi tailored, striking and “faultlessly crafted” white ensemble under a brushed cashmere twill-weave cape and a Jay Lord felted wool hat, and hear his voice in the label copy, “You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.”
Sketches and Definitions, is an introductory section that actually bookends the main exhibition, where Dighton's portrait of Beau Brummel towers. The dandy is presented both as “poet of cloth” and subject of harsh criticism and characterization – in fact, one may be surprised to learn that the feminine portrayal of the dandy came much after Brummell's time. Mirror of Fashion, 1823, a paper scroll mounted on wooden spool, offers a quick, wide-angled comparison of the many versions of the dandy at the time. There is a moment in this gallery that transgresses time and geography, moving from this scroll to three mounted iPads, where the visitor can scroll through a similarly sweeping view of the contemporary dandy on various fashion blogs (which are listed below to appease your curiosity in this character).
And if you'd like to get yourself dressed and dandied, as I did when leaving this space, there's plenty of opportunity. The RISD Museum has scheduled months of dense and colorful programming kicking off this weekend with a book signing and “The Dandy Gala” on Friday, with special guest André Leon Talley, Contributing Editor at Vogue, an Artist/Rebel/Dandy party on Saturday night at the museum, with music by DJ Unkle Thirsty, a Tweed Ride through downtown providence on Sunday, and a plethora of lectures, screenings, tastings and more through August. So don that twill-weave morning suit or cashmere cape, grab a cane and stroll to one of these events, or to the RISD Museum's Chace Center galleries during open hours and expect to leave inspired, and perhaps rebellious.
For more information on programs surrounding Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion, click over to the RISD Museum's website. For a contemporary view of the dandy today, take a look at the blogs below, also available for viewing in the Sketches and Definitions gallery.
Save St. Mark's Books [Patrick McDonald], from The Dandy's New York, 2011. Molua Muldown, photographer. Photo bricolage. Courtesy of the artist.