Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Euchronia, and, The Interview In Full

Penned upon the 24th of October, 2010

Heigh ho, all! If you haven’t seen it already, I have some very good news for you! Euchronia – Melbourne’s steampunk ball par excellence, whose success in its 2008 run can only be described as ‘frabjous’ – returns this year, this time transforming The Substation Arts Centre, Newport (a hair’s breadth from Newport station, on the Williamstown line.) What can I say, but that I’m dashed keen, and have no doubt that it shall be an extraordinary event? Well, that you should look into tickets immediately, if you haven’t already!

Second item of today’s business: my interview with the BryonySeries blog having been posted there in full, I thought I might include a copy here, for what amounts to posterity in this day and age.

1) What is the difference between a dandy and a fop? How do you define yourself?

“‘Fop’ has long been an insult, meaning someone showy and silly, but in that role, it’s entirely archaic now, so I’ve picked it up as an umbrella term for anyone who likes dressing up. Besides, being showy and silly sometimes – and a little self-deprecating, too – is fun! Being stylish is out of style, so there’s no harm in acknowledging one is a bit of an oddbod for doing it.”

2) And dandy?

“The dandy is a particular breed of fop – the two terms might have been synonymous once, but dandyism has since been associated with Beau Brummell and his crowd, and its ethos laid down by Baudelaire. The dandy is a creature of society and status – he dresses conservatively, but with great care to detail, to position himself at the very forefront of fashion. Essentially, he seeks to embody the aristocratic man – to demonstrate that he has absolutely no concerns beyond his own leisure.I… am not a creature of society and status. Not that they’d have me, of course, but I’m a quiet, uncompetitive sort of fellow, with no interest in the caprice of the fashionable elite. No more can I claim the aristocratic aversion to trade, and all that’s practical, in dress or in life. What I wear, I wear in the interest of self-expression, not status – a pursuit that anyone with an interest should be entitled to follow, I think, so if clothes should be hardwearing and economical as well as beautiful, all the better.”

3) Why do some people equate the terms with effeminate personalities?

“That’s a bucket and a half of cultural hangups right there! Men are spatial, women are verbal; men are practical, women are social; men are timeless, women are fashionable… better scholars than I have written books upon books trying to figure out where and when these ideas came from, but their net effect is the conviction that any man who dedicates himself entirely to feminine pursuits – to looking nice, showing off, and so climbing the social hierarchy – must at least be effete, if not somehow flawed as a human being. It’s hardly the worst thing to come of ingrained cultural sexism, though, and if a foppish chap has no insecurities on his own part, it shouldn’t really bother him.”

4) Any particular fashion styles particularly associated with dandyism?

“Across foppishness as a whole, it matters less what is worn than that wearing it is considered a valuable pursuit – something artistic, something worth developing in their life. Dandyism in particular, well, I might call it “fashionable menswear, only more so” – their checks more checked, their ties more tied, their pressed lines more pressed. King Edward VII is a good example of this menswear-pushed-to-the-extreme – and speaking of extremism, he was a probable Nazi sympathiser to boot. Fascists’ neckties aside, foppery covers many traditions – chaps in velvet and lace stand out, of course, but someone who really cultivated the cardigan could as well claim the name.”

5) Why are dandyism, foppery and clothes-horsing around prickly subjects?

“Believe it or not, there are still dandies in the Brummellian tradition who get a bit narky about anyone else using the term. They’re not all bad, but if you look, you’ll find they’re just some of many with very forthright opinions about the right way to dress up. Don’t dress too ostentatiously, don’t wear anything old-fashioned, don’t wear dark colours, don’t wear bright colours, don’t wear this style of coat or that style of collar, don’t answer back, respect your elders, God save the Queen, etc., etc. Folks to whom dressing is an act of social conservatism; a preservation of standards, in which fun and creativity play no part.”

6) How do the arts fit into the dandy persona?

“It’s true, the old chestnut, that to some, life itself is a work of art. Of course, given how difficult it is to find two people who would agree on a definition of ‘art’, that might not help us much. I have my own take, following my Transcendental leanings: that art is the creative process which brings together who we are and what we experience, “realism, spiritualism,” and the “aesthetic or intellectual,” as Walt Whitman put it. In other words, art is knowledge, art is thought, and nothing we do can but be artistic.”

7) So why does the 19th century attract you?

“For so much that defines modern life – mass production, urban industrial society, global electronic communications, capitalist class stratification, mass transit, the works – we can point to the 19th century and say “this is it. This is where it was born, or at least had its adolescence.”

8) Why do you say that?

“The transition to a meritocratic, democratic, professional, educated, rational society – which we now take absolutely for granted – was so dramatic, written in such great letters across everyday life, that it produced some of the most wonderful, fascinating, sometimes genius, sometimes bizarre movements, practices and ideologies that have ever been seen.”

9) Such as?

“Production and population rose, education and publication rose, world cultures blended, and more people were having more ideas than ever before. On the flipside, many of the efficiencies and simplifications of modern mass production hadn’t caught on yet, so the new methods were being used to create richer or sturdier goods.”

10) Like clothing?

“Clothing’s a great example here – the modern suit is a loose, shapeless garment compared to its Victorian counterpart, being designed to fit as many potential customers with as little work as possible. Groups like the Arts & Crafts Movement sprung up, debating how to retain this quality of workmanship while cheap goods to those who needed them. That’s a debate that’s still going today, among – for instance – the steampunk community.”

11) Any dandies worth emulating and why?

“I’ve introduced a feature to FrillyShirt recently, called the Public’s Peacocks – accounting the lives and lessons of clotheshorses who took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden, in practical politics or otherwise. There’s quite a lot of them to work with, surprisingly enough! But, even leaving politics aside, there are many fine foppish sorts who lived beautiful, inspiring lives. Oscar Wilde stands out, as he always does – for all his caustic wit and regrettable legal decisions, he was the most kind and tender man, and he wrote the most marvellous essays on the spiritual life.

12) Anyone else?

“For a more quiet, practical sort of fop, I greatly admire the American Transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau, in particular, was one who lived, worked, created and dressed all according to his own ideal – designing his own suits for country walking and for his scientific pursuits. By way of an example local to my hometown, I’d point to the Patersons – a whole family of artists, designers and philanthropists, who not only brought Aestheticism to Melbourne, but who did much to lay the foundation for Australian art as it exists today. A marvellous clan, the subject of my own continuing research and writing – and not once have I seen any of them looking less than stunning.

13) “When did your love for the nineteenth century begin?

“I suppose it was around when I began my history degree. I was a vehement radical in those days, utterly dedicated to improving the common lot by political action. Gradually, I discovered my love for history in general, the wonderfully bizarre nineteenth century in particular. At the same time, I was introduced to some wonderful artists and writers – the Romantics, the Post-Impressionists… Joseph Beuys was a big one, too – whose work celebrated the art of life. Studying under the philosopher Freya Mathews, and by her being introduced to Kant and Schelling and to Taoist thought, was the next big step – redefined my concept of the self in nature, of morality, and all that jazz.

14) What does creative expression mean for the fop?

“That the same skills which help us live beautifully can help us live well, That understanding and celebrating who we are can help us understand and celebrate the world around us. Painting, prose, weaving, dance – all means by which we comprehend what cannot be expressed more simply. I mustn’t waffle on too long, but essentially, to live artistically is to grapple with Life’s Big Questions, to go beyond pure reason and pure science, to seek the truth in your every pursuit.”


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