Modernist Women Dandies

Poetry, Photography, Authorship

by Teona Micevska (Author)
©2021 Thesis 290 Pages


Assessing the cultural history of the dandy as a figure traditionally gendered masculine, this wide-ranging study advances a critical space for the discussion of the woman dandy. Modernist Women Dandies revisits dandyism to provide an interpretative framework for re-evaluating the literary careers of women authors with atypical literary presence: Edith Sitwell, Nancy Cunard, and Mina Loy. Cutting across media boundaries, it demonstrates how their experimental poetry and portrait photographs feed into each other, fabricating dandy authorial performances that are simultaneously unapologetically feminine and queer. In showing how these authors redefined the interplay between dandyism and authorship, this book makes an important contribution to rethinking modernist literary culture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Illustrations
  • 1. Introduction: Dandyzettes and Dandies of the 1920s
  • 2. A Dandy Poetics? Cultural Formations, Authors, Images
  • 2.1. The Modernist Dandy and Queer Authorship
  • 2.2. Reading Women Dandies: A Note on Method
  • 3. Edith Sitwell: Ornamental Dandyism
  • 3.1. Photography and Performance: The Making of an Author
  • 3.2. The Dandy as a Poet and Critic: Poetry and Criticism and Other Critical Writings
  • 3.3. Façades in Verse: The Façade Poems
  • 4. Nancy Cunard: The Dandy as a Poetic Persona
  • 4.1. Portraits of a London Socialite, Texts of a Paris Author
  • 4.2. Poetic Performance of the Self: Parallax
  • 5. Mina Loy: Dandyism as an Authorship Strategy
  • 5.1. Images, Salons, Reputations
  • 5.2. The Dandy and the Essay: Poetry, Modernism, Feminism
  • 5.3. Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose and the Dandies
  • 6. Conclusion: New Dandyisms
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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1.Cruikshank, Robert. Dandies and Dandyzettes. 1818.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

2.Beaton, Cecil. Miss Edith Lying in State. 1927.

©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

3.Beaton, Cecil. The Apotheosis of Edith. 1927.

©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

4.Beaton, Cecil. Portrait of Nancy Cunard (I). 1929.

©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

5.Beaton, Cecil. Portrait of Nancy Cunard (II). 1929.

©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

6.Moffat, Curtis. [Nancy Cunard, Half-length Portrait, Side View with Mirror Reflection]. 1925.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

7.Ray, Man. Mina Loy. 1920.

© Man Ray 2015 Trust/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

8.Ray, Man. Marcel Duchamp Dressed as Rrose Sélavy. 1921.

© Man Ray 2015 Trust/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

9.Ray, Man. Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes. 1920.

© Man Ray 2015 Trust/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

10.Barney, Natalie Clifford. [Photograph of Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy]. 1927.

Courtesy of Mr François Chapon.

←12 | 13→

1. Introduction: Dandyzettes and Dandies of the 1920s

Women dandies riveted public attention long before the 1920s. A century earlier, a satirical print by Robert Cruikshank published in 1818 under the title Dandies and Dandyzettes depicts four dandies and two dandyzettes (see Fig. 1).1 The dandies are excessively thin, with hyperbolised long necks and cravats, positioned in the frontal centre of the caricature. One of the dandyzettes is positioned centrally at the front of the image, holding onto one of the dandies’ left arm. The other is far in the background of the image; only her massive hat is visible. Contrary to the slender dandy, the dandyzette’s dress is extremely wide and ornamented: she is wearing a ruby red gown and an enormous white laced petticoat, decorated with large red roses, lush green leaves and sky blue ribbons. The size of her hat rivals that of her dress; a bouquet of red roses and exuberant green leaves is perched on top of it, with an excessively wide curved brim, tied under the chin with a voluminous blue and white ribbon. While the dandy seems to be half as tall of a man, which is one of the sources of the comic effect of the caricature, the dandyzette seems to be twice the size of a woman. Furthermore, she is the only figure portrayed in profile (the dandies are all portrayed en face) and is not smiling. Her facial expression is serious, stern and impassive.

Men who obsessed with fashion were satirised in a series of prints by the Cruikshank family: Isaac (1764–1811) and his sons George (1792–1878) and Robert (1789–1856). These prints were known as the Monstrosities series from 1817 to 1821 (Janes 106). Many of them depict, as their titles suggest, dandies.2 This dandy craze, however, seems ←13 | 14→to have left out women dandies, or dandyzettes, for prints such as this one are an exception. The source of the comic effect for the men and the women depicted in this print is the same – fashion. Yet men and women had drastically different relations to fashion. While the ‘uniform mania’ can be understood as a viable strategy for men to live out their interest in fashion, women of high society were by default associated with ←14 | 15→fashion (Janes 99).3 Yet this print suggests that even if a woman was conforming to the interest in fashion, she was anyhow supposed to have, there still seems to be ground for lampooning, as if a woman’s conventional investment in fashion could become so prominent that it called for visual lambasting. Despite its rare occurrences, this visualisation of a woman with extravagant sartorial style saturated with flamboyant ornament verging on the absurd and the seemingly aloof and bored facial expression sets the most emblematic features of the women dandies long after the Regency era, even though ever since this period, women dandies have remained almost invisible in the cultural discourse and artistic depictions of dandyism.

Fig. 1.Robert Cruikshank, Dandies and Dandyzettes (1818)

In this book, I examine women’s dandyism and the cultural work of dandyism as a self-fashioning strategy performed by women, combining gender-critical inquiry into the forms, functions and politics of dandyism with the broader context of literary authorship during the 1920s. Women dandies will be approached from the perspective of authorship to investigate the ways in which they relied on and revised the legacy of dandyism as they shaped their individual author images. This approach raises the question if and why selected women authors can be understood as women dandies. It also questions how dandyism is related to the author images and artistic production of selected women authors, and which implications the interrelation of the two fields have for our understanding of these authors and their works. Finally, I delineate why dandyism was an especially potent style for communicating particular messages and which messages the authors aimed to communicate.The focus of my study lies on three authors: Edith Sitwell, Nancy Cunard and Mina Loy. Close readings of key poems and essays on poetry, ←15 | 16→as well as an analysis of representative portrait photographs taken and published during the 1920s – the most experimental phase of their respective careers – intend to highlight the tensions between the autonomy of their authorial agency and their embeddedness within the literary and cultural contexts surrounding them, as well as the multiple issues with regard to their critical interventions in the playing fields of gender and authorship.

I will argue that women dandies echoed and adapted the established performative strategies of dandyism, developing their own models of being a dandy. In the case studies analysed in this work, the authors evoke dandyism as part of a specific authorial strategy as well as a particular aesthetics. All three authors were idiosyncratic public personalities who engaged in a multitude of endeavours: they were literary authors writing in different genres as well as essayists, editors, publishers, anthologists, socialites, fashion designers, furniture designers, biographers, political activists, models and collectors of photography and paintings. Furthermore, in their artistic works – literature, visual arts and design – as well as in their sartorial styles, these authors promulgated a specific aesthetic that can be characterised as overtly feminine, ornamented, colourful, flashy, playful, ironic and self-mocking, juxtaposing elements from different historic and geographic traditions, at once experimental, eclectic and eccentric. Similarly to traditional dandies, these authors staged themselves through their public appearances as well as their artistic and professional activities. Therefore, we can only fully account for their models of dandyism when we consider that their public, poetic and visual performances are interconnected. Inversely, their literary and visual production can only be understood in its complexity through their dandyism. In this respect, I analyse the points of contact of phenomena traditionally considered separately. Moreover, this study aims to correct a received yet erroneous wisdom that only individuals perceived as men can be and could have been dandies.

The second chapter of this book prepares the stage for the analyses of the dandyism of Sitwell, Cunard and Loy. In the first section, the cultural formations that shaped traditional dandyism will be delineated. This section also explores the different models of dandyism embodied by several benchmark figures including Beau Brummell, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Ronald Firbank and Marcel Proust. Authorship and its foundational paradigms will ←16 | 17→be delved into next, funnelling into a mapping of the poetic and publishing culture of the early twentieth century, as well as the gendered conventions underpinning the emerging cultural paradigms. The second section zooms in on the methodological construction of the subsequent interpretations, building an arch from reputations, over poetry, to photography. The strategies outlined in this chapter rely on the fundaments of queer studies in seeking to understand the performances of women’s singularity that can be subsumed under the term ‘women’s dandyism’ and the possibility of a distinct dandy poetics.

While women dandies were on the social stage long before the 1920s and remain long after, it is during this decade that, as I will argue, Sitwell, Cunard and Loy fortified their positions on the literary scene by turning to dandy authorship strategies. They share manifold textual and biographical connections: Sitwell and Cunard founded the magazine Wheels together, Loy wrote and published a poetic portrait of Cunard titled ‘Nancy Cunard’, and all three frequented the same coteries in London and Paris. Besides periods of collaboration, they also shared a promotional logic and aesthetic provenance, coordinates of authorship in which the legacy of dandyism is a constitutive element. All three developed idiosyncratic public images which consisted of a highly diverse assortment of social and artistic activities: while literary authorship occupied a central place in the public projection of their selves, and they regarded themselves as literary authors, their life’s work encompassed much more than the literature they wrote. Besides being prolific authors in various genres apart from poetry (long and short prose forms including autobiographies and essays, plays and manifestos), they were also performers, art models, political activists, socialites and literary critics. They were public intellectuals who, in all their pursuits, addressed topics significantly larger than the presentation of the self, while experimenting with sartorial and literary styles.Reading Sitwell, Cunard and Loy through the lens of dandyism opens up new interpretative perspectives on the contradictory and multiple author images each of these authors developed and maintained in a delicate balance. In turn, the examination of dandyism as performed by Sitwell, Cunard and Loy diversifies the traditional idea of dandyism as a typically male phenomenon. Recalibrating the ways in which we understand their author performances then redefines their positioning in relation to ←17 | 18→the self-proclaimed ‘high priests’ of literary modernism, such as Pound or Eliot, who were later canonised as representing modernism as a whole.4 I will demonstrate that engaging with the conventions of authorship and dandyism led these authors to create a particular kind of queer subjectivity. Through their self-fashioning as polymorphic public personas active in a plethora of public engagements, they aimed at challenging and altering not only their position in literary culture but also the reception of their literary works.

During the 1920s, Edith Sitwell maintained a prominent presence in the public sphere. This was her most prolific period, publishing one poetry collection every year on average. Among them were Façade (1922), considered her most experimental collection, the long poems Sleeping Beauty (1924) and Gold Coast Customs (1929) and a long essay on poetry, Poetry and Criticism (1925). She also held regular poetry readings, including the poetry performance Façade: An Entertainment, first performed in 1922 with music composed by William Walton and Sitwell interpreting poems from Façade (1922). She was also known as one of ‘the Sitwells’ together with her brothers Osbert (1892–1969) and Sacheverell (1897–1988), with whom she collaborated on different projects. The literary salon in her flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater (London), which she shared for more than two decades ←18 | 19→with former governess Helen Rootham, was well-known ‘s in London’s literary circles.5 She was often photographed by Cecil Beaton, Stella Bowen and George Platt Lynes, and Pavel Tchelitchew, Roger Fry and Wyndham Lewis painted portraits of her. Siegfried Sassoon drew over a hundred caricatures of the Sitwells called ‘Sitwelliana’, and Noël Coward lampooned them as ‘the Swiss Family Whittlebot’ in his poetry collection Chelsea Buns (1925) that was published as written ‘by Hernia Whittlebot’, and in his eponymous musical revue London Calling! (1923). Sitwell was also known for her eccentric sartorial style, which will be one of the focal points of analysis in the third chapter, along with the poems from Façade, the essay Poetry and Criticism, as well as the performance of Façade, and selected photographs taken by Beaton.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 290 pp., 1 fig. col., 9 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Teona Micevska (Author)

Teona Micevska is a researcher in Comparative and English Literature and a research manager. She completed her PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, University of Giessen, Germany. Her research interests include literary modernism, cultures of the first half of the twentieth century, queer and trans*feminisms, and authorship studies.


Title: Modernist Women Dandies
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292 pages