Sunday’s post about Fancy Men generated the usual excellent commentary, some of which discussed whether the Fancy Man of today was the “fop” of yesterday. At about the same time, I had a conversation about a fellow I know who, having been a massive and undoubted success in a very difficult field, decided that he wanted to be known instead as a leader in a completely different, and much less admirable, field. This seemed like a good excuse for a quick-ish romp through the idea of foppery and why it mirrors, but does not quite envelop, the idea of the Fancy Man. We’ll make this one quick, because I have an early day tomorrow. I promise.
Wikipedia, which is never wrong, says that “The pejorative term (fop) today carries the connotation of a person, usually male, who is overly concerned with trivial matters (especially matters of fashion) and who affects elite social standing.” The associated term dandy typically suggests someone who is obsessed with looking good to the exclusion of everything else.
Last week, we talked about how the Fancy Men confuse signified with signifier. Example. My friend Jesse Lazare wears a Rolex Daytona because it was given to him when he won the Rolex 24. That’s a direct relationship between signified (being a Daytona winner) and signifier (wearing a Daytona watch). The fellow who wears a Daytona watch because he thinks it reinforces his “car expert” identity, or because all the other rich guys in his PCA chapter have one? Now we’re wandering into Fancy Man territory. Wearing a Gulf-colored Heuer Monaco when you’ve never raced for Gulf or seen a green flag while driving a Heuer-sponsored car? That’s as fancy as Fancy can get.
Contrast that with the fop, who dresses well because he wants to be mistaken for “the quality”, which is to say the aristocracy, or the dandy, who dresses well for the pure joy of it. Ralph Ellison describes an African-American fop subculture during the opening of Invisible Man, in which the narrator wonders about the Black men who work themselves to death at menial labor so they can put on “zoot suits” and “signify” during the evenings. There’s also a subset of fop-and-dandy culture that concerns itself with impressing women; that subset is first seen in Chaucer but we see it in today’s “street style” superstars who might live in subsidized housing but who will wear five thousand dollars’ worth of Yeezys and gold chains to impress, and potentially seduce, a woman.
From the “PUA” movement we have the “peacocks”, who wear outrageous clothing to catch the attention of girls in bars. Peacocking is much derided but it works, largely because it provides an opportunity to start a conversation. The infamous pick-up artist “Mystery” commonly wore a giant furry top hat to the bars. It got women talking, which is half the battle nowadays. Last but not least, we have the “grunge fop” movement, where people dress memorably but often shabbily, again for the purpose of being memorable and/or unique. This one hits a little too close to home for me; my father used to publicly pillory me for making expensive clothes look bad, a talent which I still possess in spades. Johnny Depp in the “Pirates” movies is the model for Grunge Fop.
Fops, therefore, dress up for the joy of it, or to impersonate the upper class, or to drop panties/boxers/gender-neutral-undergarments. The Fancy Men dress up because they desperately want to be someone interesting but it’s easier to dress like an interesting person than it is to become an interesting person. So while there’s certainly some overlap between fops, dandys (dandies?), and Fancy Men, I think it’s the same kind of overlap that makes dolphins, porpoises, and sharks all look alike from a distance. The presentation might be similar but the genetic history is very different.
Which leads to the question: The Fancy Man seems to be most comfortable on Instagram, which lets you post a photo and a story together. Did Fancy Men, as defined above, exist before The Current Year, or were they called into existence by social media? This is a tough question. Feel free to offer your opinion in the comments. The best example that comes immediately to mind is the “hipster” of the fifties, who affected the dress and speech patterns of jazz musicians to partake of their social credibility — but if we allow hipsters we also have to allow all the Sons Of Dentistry out there who buy a Harley at the age of forty-five and immediately start dressing like Sonny Barger. At that point we are awfully far away from the fellow who thinks he is James Bond because he wears a Ulysse Nardin.
Perhaps there’s a Grand Unification Theory of fops, Fancy Men, dandies, cosplayers, and HOG members. Perhaps that theory goes something like this: There is something hugely comforting in hiding behind an assumed identity. It allows us to interact with the “real world” without revealing our true and vulnerable selves. I got an email a few weeks ago from a reader who expressed mild amazement that I would write about the pain and shame of having potentially caused my first wife’s miscarriage at Altamont in 2008. “How are you able to share such deeply personal stories with a massive crowd of faceless Hagerty readers?” he asked.
I think the best answer I have to that is this: I ask my readers to share in a lot of my joys. Races won, beautiful objects experienced, purchased, or owned. Outrageous travel, remarkable women. Ridiculous jargon, shocking sexual audacity, and repulsive images of the ghetto. If I limit my writing to that stuff — if I tell you about buying twenty thousand dollars’ worth of guitars but neglect to mention that I feel responsible for a girlfriend’s suicide — if I discuss my hilarious attempt to become a pimp but neglect to mention how I destroyed any chance of a life with the woman I loved — then I’m not really an author. I’m a braggart, a fabricator, a character, no different from all those $50K billionaires on Instagram who pose endlessly with borrowed items in prepaid hotel rooms. That’s not honest, but more importantly it’s not interesting.
The problem is that it’s always easier, and more satisfying, to hide behind a fancy facade. It’s a problem that predates Instagram. When Samuel Johnson wrote his Life Of Congreve about the enormously talented playwright and poet William Congreve, he mentions in a footnote that
…[H]e treated the Muses with ingratitude, for having long conversed familiarly with the great, he wished to be considered rather as a man of fashion than of wit; and, when he received a visit from Voltaire, disgusted him by the despicable foppery of desiring to be considered not as an author but a gentleman; to which the Frenchman replied, “that if he had been only a gentleman, he should not have come to visit him.”
There are 7,200 PRS Private Stock guitars out there, of which I own six, and a quarter-million air-cooled Porsche 911s out there, of which I own one. Nobody would read this blog if I presented myself solely as an owner of middle-class affluence tokens. There are simply too many of us, and we are mostly unremarkable. More importantly, none of it truly matters. In the long run we are only worthwhile for what we create and what we accomplish, not what we own, wear, or spend. That’s why “foodies” are viewed with such contempt by decent people. You’re literally defecating the results of your hobby. They’re even worse than watch people, because when someone shits out a watch it’s remarkable enough to merit an entire scene of a Tarantino movie.
The fellow I mentioned at the beginning of this article has accomplished something amazing over the past few decades — I won’t say what it was, because it would be the same as printing his name. It’s that unique. Yet he wants to put that accomplishment behind him to become just another West Coast angel investor and “tech bro”. To which I can only give Voltaire’s response: I wouldn’t go across the country to meet with an “angel investor” or a “tech bro”. Yet this fellow is happiest when he presents himself as such. Maybe he’s right to feel that way. Maybe we’re all on some kind of journey to develop better, cleaner facades. Maybe we’d all be better off, self included, if we gave away nothing but our Instagram-ready images, our Fanciest Selves. As Eliot wrote:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate
Put another way:
When they saw you kneeling
Crying words that you mean
Opening their eyeballs, eyeballs
Pretending that you’re Al Green, Al Green
Goody two, goody two, goody goody two shoes
Goody two, goody two, goody goody two shoes
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?
Subtle innuendos follow
There must be something inside