Since the 18th century, satirists have had a fun time mocking dandies. In Hogarth to Cruickshank: social change in graphic satire, 1967, (Walker Publishing) Mary Dorothy George classified 3 different kinds of print-shop dandies: 1.) the notorious dandy, 2) the effeminate dandy, and 3) dandies who were slavish in their imitation of Beau Brummel.
I would add to those categories two more distinctions: the powerful dandy and the ridiculous dandy, or one who, from behavior or social standing, is a wholly ridiculous and insignificant creature. The latter exquisites, along with the slavish imitators and effeminate dandies, were fodder for cartoonists, especially Robert and Isaac Cruikshank, who took great glee in lampooning them in a series of hand colored engravings.
According to Jane Rendell in a Pursuit of Pleasure, the word dandy may have originated from “jack-a-dandy”, a Scottish description of a person dressing up at a fair. The word dates back to the late 18th century/early 19th centuries. In the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, Francis Grose describes the dandy:
Dandy. That’s the dandy; i.e. the ton, the clever thing
Dandy. grey Russet. A dirty brown. His coat’s dandy grey russet the colour of the Devil’s nutting bag.
Dandy. Prat. An insignificant or trifling fellow.
Much later, the word “dandy” is used to describe “Satinist” – Obs. rare”1, [f. Satin sb. + -ist.] A wearer of satin, a dandy. A new English dictionary on historical principles: founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological Society, Volume 8, Part 2, 1914.
Beau Brummel’s influence in modifying men’s behavior and dress ranged far and wide, influencing the Prince Regent and his set.
In Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England, Issue 33; Issue 61, Roger Sales identifies Henry Crawford and Tom Bertram of Mansfield Park as dandies: Tom because he is the quintessential Regency sports man, as well as rich and handsome; Henry, because of his mode of address, which shows a haughty attitude towards rural workers, and because he fashions his conversation “into exquisity little mirrors to reflect his own sense of superiority.” Henry makes elegant bows and frequently mocks others. His manners, like Beau Brummel’s, verge frequently on insolence – his stance is one of ennui and superiority at the same time. While Henry is not as handsome as Tom, he commands a room with his personality. I would classify Tom and Henry as notorious dandies, for both pushed the limits of what was considered proper behavior. The more modest Edmund Bertram would never behave like either man.
John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey belongs in the category of the ridiculous dandy. He drives a gig, but imagines it to rival a phaeton, which is like comparing a toyota corrolla to a sleek jaguar. John uses cant, and one imagines that his clothes are too loud and his shirt points too high.
As for Mr. Darcy, his looks and dress are effortlessly elegant. He doesn’t try to impress; he simply is a superior man. His arrogance, which Elizabeth Bennet found so off putting at first, comes naturally, for he is placed securely high in society. His inheritance and the cares, responsibilities and duties that great wealth bring exemplify the qualities of a gentleman who is a cut above the rest. Beau Brummel, I imagine, would have found very little fault with Mr. Darcy.
While the term dandy has come to mean many things, among my favorite cartoons of the Regency era are those that make sport of them. These caricatures must have been popular then, and are irresistible to view now.