Gentlemen, NiceGuys™ and Passive Expectant Behavior.

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?

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A Glossary of Terms:

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Antiquarian: A person for whom the past is not theorized, but rather enacted and embodied through the consumption of historical objects, including texts, artifacts, accessories, and modes of dress. In this last case, true attention to historical accuracy need not always apply — especially where bared ankles are involved.

Chap: A modern, British, invariably male proponent of a recent (Victorian and post-Victorian) past in which good grooming was as yet a valued skill. Chappists take great pride in their immaculate clothing and facial hair, posh modes of speech, and markèdly (even conspicuously) genteel behavior toward members of the opposite gender.

Dandy

Diesel Punk: Anachronistic science fiction or alternate history set in Le Fin-de-SiècleLa Belle Époque, through the end of the Interwar Period. This mode of expression belongs to the larger social movement of Steampunk (see below).

Fellow: A pleasant, agreeable sort of person, regardless of social standing.

Gender

Gentleman: The embodiment of masculine virtue of a certain era — equal parts deftness, civility, and carefully cultivated snark (no intellect required). It is said that a true gentleman is one who never offends unintentionally, and it goes without saying that a man of such standing is valued primarily for his ability to convert idleness into excellence.

Gentlewoman: A mature woman of good breeding and bearing, expected to display matronly virtues of deference, compassion, charity, good monetary sense, and the ability to organize and manage a rather large household.

Lady: Any woman of good birth, expected to have — and yet not always endowed with –certain desirable qualities, such as beauty, accomplishment, good conversation, and the ability to get things done through others without any apparent effort, on one’s own part. A lady’s face becomes diplomatically illegible whenever it suits her purposes.

Orientalist: A person who views Asian societies from one end of a telescope and pronounces them noble and good some time in the past, but alas, now fallen into decadence and degeneration. The further from Europe an Orientialist looks, the farther he assumes he is looking into the past, and all things unfamiliar are primitive to him — unless of course they catch his fancy. Orientalists often express their proclivities for other cultures through the conspicuous consumption of aesthetically-oriented goods and dress from distant geographies in much the same manner that the Antiquarian consumes the trappings of distant pasts.

Peer: A person of equal social (but not necessarily moral) standing, in England determined primarily by birth and bearing and in America determined primarily by manner and money (including just how recently that money might have been got at).

Philologist: A person for whom history and historical social culture (or at least the imagined ideals of a historical social culture) are read primarily through language and literature at the exclusion of more concrete concerns about the ways in which weak people on the ground actually did behave in the world, historically.

Sex

Steampunk: (n.) A social movement which reinvents the Victorian era in its own image through the vehicle of anachronistic science fiction, alternate history, and period travelogue literature. Ideologically, steampunk can be seen as acting in a number of distinct ways:

1) a means for the aficionado to observe and actualize a romanticized past without being tied to the more negative realities underlying actual historical social structures;

2) a means to reënchant the present day and imbue it with a renewed sense of place and purpose;

3) a means to remove oneself from the (very Victorian) tautology of ‘inevitable’ historical progress and explore alternate historical possibilities.

Steampunk: (adj.) Following or in close relation with the aesthetic promoted by the steampunk social movement. In sartorial terms, this is characterized by loosely Victorian dress enhanced by the incorporation of steam-powered or mechanical gadgetry that tends to imitate either modern invention (such as telephones and automobiles) or period futuristic fantasy (à la submarines and dirigibles). The aesthetic also incorporates a more disengaged or symbolic representation of the same (gears, levers, and so forth, divorced from their utilitarian context and recast in an aesthetic light). Finally, the aesthetics draw on the representation of period science fiction themes and characters that remain popular to this day (consumption, exorcism, monster-hunters, wolf-men, Cthulu, &c.).

Ladies, Chaps, and Gentledandies, All!

There comes a point in any person’s life at which he suddenly becomes interested in sartorialisms. For this fella, the interest was rather late in the coming. My longtime self-identification as a gentleman cannot have helped matters, much. Women (a category in which I eventually found myself, despite a strikingly agender and aromantic adolescence) are very assuredly not considered gentlemen. And yet, a woman with gentlemanly values is hardly the same thing as a gentlewoman.

This is a blog of ambiguities, for ne’er was there a once-upon-a-time when gents wore gowns and ladies wore mustaches. The cultural sources of this, my little sartorial adventure, include historical precedents for both genders dating from the beginning of the English Civil War to the end of World War II, as well as modern re-imaginings and evocations of the same. Indeed, Serenity Hewitt is the nom de plume I use for Steampunk conventions.

Serenity Hewitt

Antiquarian — Orientalist

So say the visiting cards.