The scene occurs in the men’s section at Zara. A young man has two pairs of skinny denims in his hands: one red, and the other, basic blue. He thinks only for an instant before he puts down the blue and picks up a close-fitting V-neck tee in green, and then proceeds to select a V-neck cardigan that compliments it. He tries them all out and then preens in front of a mirror. I suppress the need to pass a sarcastic comment as he takes off the cardigan and tries an even smaller size—for that skinny look all over, of course. He looks pleased. The shoes have to be even skinnier, with that pointed tip, and just before he heads for the payment counter, he picks up a fedora from a shelf. “Hey, you forgot the man purse over there by the scarves,” I almost mutter. But he already has one.
In the past few years, it has become painfully clear to me why I hate the Indian dandy. An ex-boyfriend used to point out in public why he thought it was time I visited a salon for hair removal. He would peer at my upper lip wisps and say, “Oh my God, that’s worse than mine.” Since he spent all his free time getting facial treatment at a spa, he was suddenly an authority on my pores and wrinkles.
Yes, I hate dandies for that. A friend recalls the indignation she once felt as she jogged down the streets of Bandra. She was in a pair of faded tracks, with her hair flying about and sweat forming in her armpits, when she saw a couple of men jogging in such sleek and shiny fitness gear that it made her cringe. “The worst thing,” she says, “was that they smelled like a garden of fresh flowers.” Yes, I hate them for that. Men who take too much interest in how they look, walk and talk are the ones who go about pointing out your flaws.
The Indian dandy is a victim of the Metrosexual Syndrome and it seems to have infected all good men these days—they are getting skinnier, prettier and trendier by the day. You can spot them everywhere: in malls, fashion weeks, corporate houses, literary circles, Bollywood or the cricket field. These are men who fashion magazines drool over, like actor Rahul Khanna, model Acquin Paes, comedian Vir Das, designer Narendra Kumar and businessman Siddharth Mallya. Renaissance men, here to herald the era of the ‘new man’.
But when Sachin Tendulkar stepped out in that horror of a hairstyle, I knew that the dandy curse was getting out of hand. They seem to have distinct features—thin, cleanshaven face (if it does bear a stubble, it’s strategically groomed to pinpoint perfection), a skinny suit with a tie that’s all too prim, and hair so trussed you could dip his head in a pool of water and nothing would change. A recent issue of GQ India carried a ‘well dressed list’ full of men in skinny suits, bow-ties, coloured cardigans and fedoras. It had a female model, Mia Uyeda, describing dandy model Sahil Shroff’s appeal in words that went like this: ‘He’s always on top of the latest trends, and you’ve got to love a man who puts this much effort into his appearance.’
But do you really want to love a man who puts so much effort into his looks? Or do you, like Italian designer Ermanno Scervino, believe that “Clothes may make the man, but there has to be a man first”?
Model Freddy Daruwala, who is ecstatic that I refer to him as ‘a dandy’, says he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t be one. He sees the tag as something to be proud of, as an appellation for a man who values and strives for excellence. His beauty regime is strict, and to his mind, it’s the minute details that matter. He gets his nose and ear hair taken off, has his elbows and knees moisturised, ensures that his waist never expands beyond his regulation 32 inches, and always buys clothes that fit him to perfection. “Being dandy is about hygiene as well, and the layman doesn’t know that,” he says, “If you think shaving my chest makes me a metrosexual, so be it.”
When I tell Daruwala that many girls hate a man telling them that they are too fat or that a colour doesn’t look good on them, he laughs, “Why shouldn’t I be honest? I don’t see anything wrong in that. I want to tell my partner what looks good on her. If women didn’t care about what men thought, why do they go buy lingerie they think their lover would swoon over?”
Nikhil Mehra of designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil, famous for stylish menswear, is also a self-confessed dandy. To him, “men like us” are a special clan, one that’s leading an urban revolution of sorts. “The Dandy was a new concept in India around three years ago, but now there is a lifestyle around it,” he says, “There are salons, clothing labels, dieticians, fitness therapists all for men like me. I don’t even bother about the criticism because those who laugh are the ones who are scared of change. The myth that women like rough and tough men is bunkum. A balanced metrosexual is the best lover—he knows his own needs well, so he will know yours too.”
A chat with my fashion forward friends leaves me no less flabbergasted. They all proclaim their love of the dandy. They want him to work the colour block trend and sport a fedora. As my friend and fashion blogger Anushka Hajela says, “I would actually prefer a man who is groomed to perfection, even if he looks gay. I admire a man who has the balls to try this. There is nothing like too much effort.”
To me, too much effort still signifies an attempt to either fit in or stand out. It warms my heart to see my husband pick out his trusted white shirt, blue jeans and kolhapuri combo every time we need to attend a fancy do. And if I ask him how I look, his answer is always “Beautiful”. If I ask him for an opinion on my upper lip hair, he has to stare at my face for a couple of minutes before saying, “Yes, maybe you need to go now.” That’s all the sensitivity I need.
Those of us who hate the dandy, do so with a passion. Media professional Ruth David would steer clear of a man who spends too much time in front of a mirror. “I once knew a man who would offer advice on what nail paint was appropriate,” she says, “Needless to say, his appeal faded in less time than the paint did. I find vanity in a man the most unappealing trait. Also, Indian men are too self-conscious… maybe because, culturally, there isn’t much emphasis on men’s dressing and fashion in India.” She also recounts a shopping expedition with a guy she once considered ‘cute’: “And then, in the mall, he asks me, ‘Does the colour of this shirt go well with my skin tone?’ That was the last time I went anywhere with him.”
Even more put off is Shrimi Sinha, a real estate professional who finds the Indian dandy “disgusting”. Says she, “I like old-school men. Rugged and dependent on their women… well, a bit dependent for their clothing. Metrosexuals are so anal and effeminate. I like men who are more concerned with cars and cricket than clothes and salons.” When I dig deeper, out comes the story that explains her disdain. “I have some men in my office who sit around discussing how much weight they have gained or lost. Really? Give me a break. Then they talk about how women in the office dress. I can understand it if you remember a girl’s feet looking nice because she gets pedicures every week, but talking about what brand of bag she’s carrying or lipstick she uses? That’s crossing the line. These men are so brand conscious.”
The Indian dandy, let’s face it, is an ersatz dandy. A put-on, a fake—‘inferior in quality’, as a literal translation of the German word has it. He doesn’t understand what being a dandy is actually about. In 18th century Britain, the dandy was someone who placed extraordinary importance on the way he looked, but who was also well-read, discerning, witty and elegant, all rolled into one. Dandyism.net lists out a few characteristics of a true dandy: tall, slender, handsome, but also a discerning man with financial independence, wit, endearing egotism and a blasé worldview to go with that.
The first dandies were notable characters like Lord Byron, French poet Charles Baudelaire and author Oscar Wilde. “I grew up reading the works of famous dandies like Byron and Wilde,” says Bandana Tiwari, fashion features editor of Vogue India, “Today, ‘dandy’ is associated with the metrosexual man, who to me is just degenerate. The tag says nothing while pretending to say a lot. In the 18th century, to be a dandy you had to be a brilliant raconteur, someone whose mind was dressed as well as his self. These people were connoisseurs of aesthetics. Dandyism is nothing without intellect. You see dime-a-dozen dandies on TV these days, and describing them as ‘dandies’ is a crime. They think it’s all about snide remarks and being bitchy. This mock dandyism is terrible.” Asked to name an authentic Indian dandy, Bandana is at a loss. “There is no one.”
To many women, being a dandy is almost the equivalent of not “being a man”. As actress Gul Panag puts it, “My idea of a man is of a classic man. I don’t want him to be a fashion victim and follow trends. He has to be an all-seasons guy. Isn’t it a feminine compulsion to try out things? Indian men don’t understand their body types, but still want to dress dandy. It’s pretentious. The jeans can’t be too tight. I need a man who can change a flat tyre, not say, ‘Oh, my clothes won’t allow me to do that.’ I don’t want to know how much time and effort a man puts into the way he looks. If he takes more time than I do, well, there’s a problem.”
Rupa Gulab, author of A Girl Alone, has a sole test for the dandy. “Would he kill a cockroach with those shoes or would he just say, ‘No, my shoes come first’?” she says, “A really well-dressed man is not despicable either, as far as I’m concerned, so long as he meets the following parameters: understated style, classic cuts and colours, and no jewellery, unless you’re a damn good rockstar, okay? And even if you are a damn good rockstar, no gold and diamonds—oh please.”
For a man to be truly sexy, you would agree, it has to be effortless. After all, don’t you find a woman who’s made up not to look made-up irresistible? We all loved Heathcliff, didn’t we? Getting kissed by a man who tries too hard is so not the stuff lusty afternoon daydreams are made of. As for that dandy detective Hercule Poirot, he is as sexy as a dead fish. The only metrosexual who counts is one who’s nonchalant. Daniel Craig as James Bond in his collared tees and expensive watches. Or Christian Bale as the brooding millionaire Bruce Wayne in that Versace suit. Closer home, who could deny the raw appeal of actors like Vinod Khanna or Dharmendra? They were men, real men.