Cosplayer at Sydney Supanova 2012 | Photo by Oliver Damian
Cosplayer at Sydney Supanova 2012 | Photo by Oliver Damian

Dandy, hipster, metrosexual, cosplayer & tech bro: talking to myself about design history

By Oliver Damian

Who do you think are today's dandies?

I don't think that hipsters (Plevin 2008) or metrosexuals (Simpson 2002) are today's dandies. Although hipsters are more left-wing than the ‘I have money to spend’ metrosexuals, they both define themselves by what they consume. They are not true dandies because they just use their clothes to signal the kind of consumer that they are. As Chrisman-Campbell (2013) put it: their clothes are just a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

If as suggested by Chrisman-Campbell (2013): “A dandy is defined not by what he wears, but by how much he cares” then to me today's dandies are the cosplayers. The whole point of cosplay or costume play is the costume itself and the action of wearing the costume. These costumes are copied from or inspired by anime, comics, movies and pop culture. I have been to a few cosplay conventions and I can attest to the care and craft that cosplayers go into making their own costumes. While hipsters or metrosexuals may simply end up as marketing labels to sell more clothes & accessories, I can see that cosplay is a true subculture that spans race, age, gender and socio-economic status.

Is it just about the clothes then?

Dandyism only makes sense if it antagonises the reigning conventions. Beau Brummel's short hair, full length trousers, no make-up, clean shaven look and lack of title was only seen as radical because it opposed the wig, make-up and flowing dresses of the royalty and aristocracy. As Howells put it (1996, preface xxix): ‘Originality is like the elusive isotope of certain elements; it cannot exist on its own and appears only in the difference which separates it from the element to which it is bound in the periodic table’.

Clothes are just the tip of the iceberg. For example intellectual dandyism is Baudelaire's antidote to his loss of faith in god, nature, history and the self; that is by holding the belief ‘in the value of art as the only way left open to modern man to transcend the chaos of his experience’ (Howells 1996).

In the same way, the meaninglessness of the hamster wheel of work and consumption and the attack on the privacy of individuals by the surveillance state and corporations may bring individuals back into the fold of the mythology of the Marvel and Star Wars Universe or the Game of Thrones: individuals anonymised by hiding behind the mask and costume of Iron Man, Darth Vader and Jon Snow.

Is the industrial revolution to blame for this hamster wheel of work and consumption?

Well the harnessing of fossil fuels and industrial machines has allowed us to grow populations, produce an abundance of goods and services, and create the complex world we now live in. Sadly, we have replicated the way we squeeze efficiency out of machines into the way we organise ourselves as humans. We are not machines. We are not just units of labour and consumption that feeds into the gross domestic product (GDP). We are not our jobs or our bank balance. Our houses are places to live in not assets that need to appreciate each year. Even if most of us no longer work as a factory tramp in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, most of us are still Dilberts in the assembly line of accounting, marketing, law, finance in the so called service industries.

John Stuart Mill got it right back in 1859 when he wrote: ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’ and ‘Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable’ (Benkler 2006, p. 6).

Sadly this insight had been lost in the frenzy of planning and efficiency focus of ‘one size fits all’ philosophy of Fordism and Taylorism that has dominated the cognitive framework since the industrial revolution.

Do you see a way out?

Just as the ‘entrepreneurs who masterminded part of the industrialization process […][had the] ability to recognize the potential of new technology and to break through some of the economic habits that had dominated the previous generation’ (Stearns 2007, p. 3), I have faith that today's Internet entrepreneurs can pave the way out.

As software continues to eat the world (Andreessen 2011), we are seeing social innovations in open source software such as Linux in the world of bits bleed into creative commons, open government, and open hardware in the world of atoms. We see people who have had prior success in the software world switch their focus into solving problems in the organic and physical world. For example Bill Gates from Microsoft now working to rid the developing world of debilitating diseases through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Elon Musk co-founder of Paypal now working on electric cars, space travel and solar energy.

If the Industrial Revolution had arcades, railways and Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (Wyman 2001), our time has websites, internet mobile phones and Jeff Bezos's Amazon.

Is the Internet then enabling a resurgence of the romantic craftsman?

You could certainly say that there is something romantic about two persons in a garage working on their start-up to be the next Google or Facebook. However it goes deeper than that. When Sennett (2008) discussed the ‘flamboyant’ grammar of craftsmanship in Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849, Sennett wrote at page 113: ‘Now Ruskin is beginning to contemplate, as we have seen among Linux programmers, the intimate connection between problem solving and problem finding’.

Sennett alludes to the current paradigm among software and other start-ups to fail often, fail fast; to prototype, create minimum viable products, test, measure and pivot when it's not working; to in a way ‘lose control temporarily’.

The Parisian flâneur (Parkhurst Ferguson 1994) of the 1800s has become the rational flâneur of today. One who has a non-narrative approach to life and looks for optionality. One who engages in anti-fragile tinkering and bricolage (trial and error with small bounded mistakes but whose upside can be very large). One who is not locked into a given program, who can change his mind based on the discovery of new information (Taleb, pp. 427-431).