Rather than beginning with an article on dandy clothing or its related modern subcultures, I want to begin this blog with an opinion piece on a fairly broad issue of old-fashioned masculine identity, to set the tone for a blog which, I hope, will be able to address the intersections between these sorts of concerns. In fact, this is a matter of some importance to many groups which use ‘dandy’ clothing to denote certain social values and expectations:
What does the word ‘gentleman’ mean to people, today, who is compassed by or ‘allowed’ to appropriate that category, and how has the term been routinely abused, to the point that sometimes it feels almost like it’s become a dirty word?
Historically, a gentleman is an official member of a formal class of landed nit-quite-nobility called the gentry. Critically, the gentry need not be born so. A person could be knighted and gain entry to this social rank by great deeds (à la Sir Ian McKellan) or buying a position from the government (à la Shakspere) — in one move incorporating potentially dangerous talented, visionary, and new money elements into the existing social hierarchy and simultaneously adding a little extra to the kingdom’s coffers.
What this also meant is that, historically, gentlemen were men of a certain standing who were very often tied to — and very often tried to dissociate themselves from — well-to-do professional families (merchants, doctors, lawyers, and the like). Theirs was a position marked by privilege and bolstered by a sense of exclusivity that all-too-consciously belied the actual permeability of the station.
In America, which dispensed with the formalized system of aristocracy, promoted a rather more meritocratic aristocracy, in the original sense of the term (his status as aristos being determined by his level of worldly success). To be a gentleman, a person must 1) behave as a gentleman, 2) surround himself with other gentlemen (or ‘ladies’ in the non-titular sense), and 3) be acknowledged as belonging to that milieu. Because the second and third are not always available, the first becomes a focal point in American culture. Even when Americans say what a gentleman is, they primarily concerned with what a gentleman does.
So what, then, does a gentleman do? The ‘easy’ answer might be politeness, but this misses the difference between a gentleman and a professional, does it not? And no, adding deference to women, children, and the elderly (we will get to the abuse of ‘chivalry’ in a moment, also) does not fix the flaw in this definition, because what behavior is polite? Politeness in the professionalism presents a clean, direct, inoffensive, impersonal style of interaction that attempts to be friendly without being especially intimate. Issues that may cause people discomfort are stringently avoided (political correctness). Any argument that arises attempts to be rational-persuasive and, again, impersonal. It tends also to deal in respectfully asking and giving opinions as a way to get to know a person.
This is the style of politeness most people are prepared for, as a part of their upbringing, because it is intent on getting a good response from social superiors and appealing broadly to an often faceless, voiceless, abstracted audience. But I think most of us realize that the cookie-cutter way of treating people performed by a lawyer or business manager not gentlemanship — even if he also gives children candy, dogs biscuits, and opens doors for old ladies. :7
Remember what I said about gentlemen historically defining themselves against professionals? This distinction still applies today. Imagine, if you will,
Is not the contrast is immediately apparent?