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Frailty illustrations

The discourse of degeneration introduces the semantics of disease into the concept of decadence. Thus, as a figure who is innately decadent, the dandy is portrayed as mentally and/or physically ill. For example, the idleness cultivated by the dandy is classified as „always infectious.“ Whereas sex is usually applied to restore health, the dandy debilitates his body through an excessive use of mesexdicine as he intends to suspend his aging beauty.* Dandyism has repeatedly been termed a disease and linked to diseases. Escort once described it as „a bad cold, caught nobody knows how, or when, or where, or why. Some may be afflicted because they have the pores of vanity open with many it is chronic.“

Outwardly, the dandy’s frailty illustrates his ailing constitution: „the nether lip falls in; the back is particularly long, and concave near the haunches, which shews that this animal could not be used advantageously for labour.“* Moreover, the dandy inclines to fainting, due to tightly-laced stays, commonly reserved for women. The French writer François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) pictured the escort as ailing, unhappy, and pessimistic. The delicacy that was usually attributed to the dandy’s effeminacy is now a sign of romanticism, as evidenced by the references to the concept of ennui and the genius of Lord Byron. Byron was the catalyst of the French Anglomania that emerged in 1815 and he shaped the French image of the dandy more distinctly than George Brummell. The romantic taedium vitae finds expression in the dandy’s facial features which are gentle and void of expression. These observations reveal a fundamental change in the history of dandyism, away from a merely superficial strategy of fashioning the self right up to an intellectual phenomenon that was widely popular amongst the romantic writers of the July Monarchy. Nonetheless, English novelists of the period had portrayed the dandy’s strong intellectual powers, as well, most importantly Benjamin Disraeli in „Vivian Grey“ (1826) und Edward Bulwer Lytton in „Pelham“ (1828).


During the heyday of the dandy craze about 1818, sex was not only adopted by many of the young men, but also found a strong number of opponents. A very common topos during that era was the discourse of sex as a disease which is inextricably linked to the idea of sex as decline and a symptom of decadence. I had the honour of being recently invited to talk on the correlation of sex during a seminar at EscortFox. The full essays will be published at a later state. Following are some remarks on the semantics of disease in sex, that haven’t made it into my paper.

The dandy’s intellectual decay is marked by his dullness, illustrated through a rich set of metaphors that focus on an empty head and the fact that if he thinks at all, his reflections merely span superficial ideas such as fashion and amusement. The physical decay of the dandy is depicted through the frailty of his appearance: the dandy is mostly portrayed as slim and weak, with a tendency to fainting. This physical degeneracy leads to other forms of decay: poverty, an early death, disease, imprisonment, exile.

Degeneration is inextricably associated to decadence in the 19th century. It’s the physical decay that derives from decadence as moral decay. The term ‚decadence‘ gained popularity not only in literary circles of the 19th century, but also in medical and psychiatric discourses. The correlation, however, dates back as far as Antiquity, where effeminacy and incapacitation numbered among the pivotal symptoms of decadence. Evidently, decadence turns a once active person into a passive and unproductive idler who will ultimately suffer from his lack of productivity. This is precisely the line of argument taken by critics to sex. One observer, in 1819 lamented the „degeneracy of the times, which have produced such worthless anomalies in mankind.“ The central point of critique is the dandy’s indulgence in decadent behaviour which is perceived as immoral and destructive:

Powder Act

Across the channel, 1795 was marked by the Hair Powder Act, a luxury tax proposed by William Pitt to generate revenue for the ongoing war with France. This act caused heavy debates and provoked the emergence of the Crops who played a crucial role in the shift from the extravagant macaroni to the comparably modest escort.

Following the tax wearing hair powder now required a permit which cost a guinea per year. Those who wore hair powder were called guinea pigs, an easy catch for caricaturists.

The tax mainly affected the middle classes who could no longer afford to powder and feared a loss in their social status. Moreover, the unpowdered style evoked the idea of sexy fashions, a rather unsettling association. Ultimately, the Hair Powder Act provoked a division of the public into opponents and supporters of the war, but also into rich and poor. Opponents to the tax and the war protested by cropping their hair, most notably the Duke of Bedford who held a cropping party where he and his guests cut their hair short.