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by David Isle

New York Times columnist David Brooks has, in typical Brooksian fashion, used today’s column to summarize in a few hundred words the meaning of “cool.” He writes:

The cool person is stoical, emotionally controlled, never eager or needy, but instead mysterious, detached and self-possessed. The cool person is gracefully competent at something, but doesn’t need the world’s applause to know his worth. That’s because the cool person has found his or her own unique and authentic way of living with nonchalant intensity.


It emerged specifically within African-American culture, among people who had to withstand the humiliations of racism without losing their temper, and who didn’t see any way to change their political situation. Cool culture in that context said, you can beat me but I am not beaten, you can oppress me but you can’t own me. It became a way of indicting society even if you were powerless, a way of showing your untrammeled dignity.

I will leave it to others to debate how much insight David Brooks might have about the meaning of “cool” (the column ends with a brief discourse on the meaning of “woke”). But his description reminds me of those founding fathers of modern menswear, the Regency dandies of early 19th century England.

Though it quickly became a slur, dandyism in its original form was not merely fussy over-attention to sartorial details. Like coolness, it was an entire mode of living. Its original and greatest practitioner was Beau Brummell, who was indeed “stoical, emotionally controlled, never eager or needy, but instead mysterious, detached, and self-possessed.” In that sense, dandyism may even have been the ur-cool. 

The “nonchalant intensity” of coolness manifested in dandyism as an inversion of usual human priorities, fixating on the minutest of details in propriety or epicurean pleasures while disclaiming any investment in personal relationships or political power. Hence Brummell’s famous claim to have broken off an engagement with a woman upon learning that she ate cabbage. The person who wielded this inversion with the greatest power was Oscar Wilde, one of the last people who could claim any sort of inheritance from Brummell. Wilde wrote that “we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality,” which is the sort of thing Brummell would have said if he were as clever as Wilde. 

Despite being an interest that only a rather wealthy person could pursue, dandyism did even carry an element of dignity despite powerlessness, as Brook suggests of coolness. The early 19th century was a time of significant social turmoil in England - the old upper crust was losing its monopoly on power and wealth, through the industrial revolution and democratic reform. They remained, of course, immensely wealthy and powerful, but surely they felt that their world was collapsing. Dandyism was in some ways an effort to accede to this new world superficially but not spiritually. Gone were the jewels and rich fabrics of earlier eras, but the sense of innate superiority remained.

The source of that superiority shifted, though. Brummell was not high-born - his father had accumulated a respectable fortune as a bureaucrat, but he had no royal blood. Dandyism therefore had appeal to the royal and non-royal alike. For the royal, dandyism offered a bit of je ne sais quoi that the commoners could never take away from them. For the non-royal, dandyism offered a source of social standing independent of genealogy. Despite this Brummell’s birth, he proclaimed himself the Prince Regent’s better, based purely on his own charisma and personal will. “I made him what he is,” said Brummell of the Regent, “and I can unmake him.” 

If Brummell thought that, he was wrong. Eventually the Prince broke with him, which resulted in Brummell’s sizable debts being called in, and his flight to France. There, Brummell’s sense of dignity survived on table scraps for a while, but finally the trammeling was too much he died alone, in misery, penury, and insanity. 

But he was the coolest man of his era. He found a “unique and authentic way of living” that three generations of Englishmen and Frenchmen sought to emulate. That mimicry often succeeded in replicating the details of Brummell’s lifestyle, but in its conscientiousness lost the sense of it - the coolness of it. Coolness would have to wait a while before its reincarnation in a new form.