Everywhere you look these days, dudes look like ladies. At the movies, Leonardo DiCaprio struts around West Egg like it was his personal runway in Jay Gatsby’s iconic pink suit and beautiful shirts. On television, Michael Douglas inherits Liberace’s feathered, bedazzled mantle in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. Museum exhibitions—David Bowie Is … at the V&A, Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Met, and Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion at the RISD Museum—celebrate male fashion iconoclasts. Recent books on the wardrobes of Liberace and Michael Jackson lavish loving attention on each rhinestone and sequin.
On his own, a Gatsby, Liberace, Bowie, or Jackson is an eccentric; together, they join a continuous parade of peacocks, stretching all the way back across the last century and beyond. “Not afraid of the odd, the outré, and even the pastel, he also does not fear the effeminacy associated with the dandy’s art,” writes Monica L. Miller in the Artist/Rebel/Dandy catalogue. She is describing André Benjamin, but it’s a serviceable definition of the modern-day dandy.
In historical terms, singling out certain men as exceedingly ornamental is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the late 18th century, everyone who could afford them—male or female—wore vivid silks and velvets, lace, embroidery, fur, ribbons, and cosmetics. Muffs, earrings, silk stockings, wigs, and high-heeled shoes were unisex garments. Luxurious, eye-catching clothes were not considered indicators of masculinity or femininity, but signs of wealth and taste.
They still are. Though the French Revolution made sartorial displays of wealth politically incorrect, it was a blip rather than a turning point. From the rubble of the Bastille rose the dandy, less flamboyant than his ancien régime ancestors but equally fastidious. “As others dress to live, he lives to dress,” Thomas Carlyle quipped.
For most of human history, new clothing has been extraordinarily expensive; to change clothes was to change class. Gatsby (né James Gatz) and Liberace used clothes to proclaim that they’d arrived; if they proclaimed it a little too loudly, only a snob would notice. Gatsby and Liberace were not true dandies—their clothes (like Gatsby’s parties) were a means to an end, rather than the end itself. But they were masters of the art of masculine self-presentation.
Liberace, born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, was the quintessential immigrant made good. The third of four children of an Italian father and Polish mother, he grew up in Depression-era Milwaukee. As a child piano prodigy, he performed in his brother’s hand-me-downs. When he moved to New York to break into showbiz in the 1940s, Connie Furr Soloman and Jan Jewell reveal in Liberace Extravaganza!, the struggling young musician saved up ketchup packets to make soup.
When you go from rags to riches, the first thing you do is replace the rags. “I vowed that if I became rich and famous, I’d never wear anything ripped, torn or patched,” Liberace once said. He made a point of telling audiences exactly how much his ornate stage costumes had cost. His gimmick of arriving onstage in a chauffeured car was not another affectation, but a practical necessity; he couldn’t walk in those heavy fur coats and rhinestone-encrusted capes. Liberace’s fashion role model was King Ludwig II of Bavaria; not content to dress like a mere man, he dressed like a king.
And he lived like one. In 1955, the Guinness Book of World Records named Liberace the world’s highest paid musician. His Emmy-winning television show was more popular than I Love Lucy. But his popularity plummeted amid tabloid insinuations about the “hennaed, perfumed, sequin-jacketed … mama’s boy in curls.” When a libel settlement and brief, well-publicized engagement failed to quash the gay rumors, Liberace adopted a more conventional look, straightening his wavy hair and donning sober Brooks Brothers suits. The makeover flopped. By 1963, he was back in bugle beads, and his career rebounded. He returned to TV in 1969, saying “it was a shame to waste mother-of-pearl trimmed suits on tour audiences.” Now, viewers could finally appreciate his fabulousness in full color. As the buttoned-down ’50s gave way to the unzipped ’60s, mainstream menswear caught up with Liberace’s look. His ruffled shirts, wide lapels, and outsized velvet bow ties in psychedelic hues no longer appeared over the top, but right on trend.
Like Liberace, Michael Jackson overcame humble beginnings; he never forgot how his fingertips bled when he sewed his own rhinestone-encrusted costumes as an up-and-coming child star. Even at the height of his fame, he insisted on wearing scuffed-up Florsheim loafers, telling his dresser, Michael Bush, author of The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson: “These are the shoes my family could afford and what I learned to dance in.” But when it came to his clothes, no expense or inconvenience was too great. His favorite outfit was a pearl-encrusted military jacket inspired by a portrait of Henry VIII. Jackson never met a medal, epaulet, or armband he didn’t like, often quoting Napoleon’s dictate: “It is with such baubles that men are led.”