MAKE LIFE BEAUTIFUL! At brighton museum and art gallery
By Frances Huggett 3.11.2003

Photo: Cecil Beaton Portrait of Stephen Tennant, 1927

The latest exhibition at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, running until January 11, looks at the dandy in photography from the mid-19th century to the present. It challenges common misconceptions about the dandy as an impeccably dressed aristocratic young man with a cigarette holder. While the dandy can be all of these things, it is also much more. Dandies can be men or women, black or white. "Dandyism is often understood as a cliche of flamboyance and effemininity, but its much more subtle and complex than that", says Mary Goody, exhibitions officer. "It's also about rebellion and asserting the freedom of the individual."

Photo:Cecil Beaton Self Portrait as George IV, late 1930s

The exhibition examines the development of the dandy chronologically and opens with a portrait of Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century writer. Although he was the archetypal dandy, he dressed simply in a black suit and white shirt. A line from one of his books provides the title for the exhibition, and expresses a desire for things to be beautiful above all else, an idea central to dandyism. On display is the famous photograph of a young Oscar Wilde in a quilted smoking jacket and several images of Noel Coward. Other portraits show over-dressed men in top hats and ruffled shirts, posing with the ubiquitous cigarette between their fingers. Cecil Beaton’s photography features strongly. There is a self-portrait where Beaton is dressed as George IV and a photograph of Tom Wolfe, the American writer, in a bright white suit. In particular, Beaton’s portrait of the Hon Stephen Tennant demonstrates the sexual ambiguity of dandyism. He has gold dusted hair, a chinchilla fur collar and Vaseline smeared eyelids.

Photo:Pierre-Louis Pierson: Elvira, 1861-67

A series of four Andy Warhol photographs includes one of him in drag, complete with platinum wig and scarlet lipstick. Interestingly, there were also several influential women dandies. While male dandies often adopted more feminine qualities, women dandies chose very manly clothes and poses. They had their own interpretation of dandyism but continued its theme of subversion and individualism. French surrealist writer Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, poses in masculine suits, her head shaved. There is also a series of photographs of the Countess de Castiglione, perhaps the original woman dandy, in outrageously flamboyant dresses, some with a width of over six feet. The modern woman dandy is represented by Sam Taylor-Wood's self-portrait (2001), an androgynous figure posing in a suit.

Photo: Sam Taylor-Wood: Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001

Another surprising part of the exhibition features Jason Evan's photographs of young black male dandies that appeared in i-D magazine in the 1990s. He captures some fantastic shots of them dressed in cravats, brogues and hacking jackets. Their leafy suburban backdrop highlights the contrast between these and the more common urban, street-style images of young black men that pervade today. There is an intensely political aspect to the black dandy. They were motivated to dress in this unconventional way to deliberately draw attention to themselves in a world where they felt ignored. On display is even a photograph of a black dandy from 1900. By dressing in white men's clothes they empowered themselves and refused to accept their inferior position in society.

Photo: Claude Cahun: Self-Portrait, c. 1928

Make Life Beautiful! The Dandy in Photography is a thoughtful exhibition that goes well beyond the image of a fastidiously dressed white man and explores the philosophy behind the dandy. It spans 150 years and is a diverse collection of both contemporary and traditional photographs.