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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. When I say the word dandy, what do you think of?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YANKEE DOODLE DANDY")

LYDEN: Maybe this song, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," which dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War and compares the colonists to foppish, effeminate idiots: the dandies. But an exhibit at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design this summer reclaims the term. It explores dandyism through the ages, linking it to the cutting edge of men's fashion and style. The name of the show is "Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion" and still leaves you wondering what are you going to see?

LAURIE BREWER: Am I going to see purple? Am I going to see lace? Am I going to see ruffles? What does dandy mean in the contemporary context?

LYDEN: That's Laurie Brewer, the assistant curator of the show. She and co-curator Kate Irvin put a lot of thought into the question: what is a dandy?

It's about being an individual and expressing yourself creatively with certain passions and flair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: A man gets up in the morning and puts on a suit and tie never knowing the debt he owes to the original dandy Beau Brummel, the father of modern men's fashion. Kate Irvin.

KATE IRVIN: He made himself through his clothes. He was born outside of the aristocracy.

LYDEN: The exhibit begins with Beau Brummel, a self-made man who joined the British Royal Regiment in the late 1700s in England.

IRVIN: He caught the eye of the future King George IV.

LYDEN: Who asked Brummel to dress him. That might sound strange today, but back then, believe me, it was an honor. Irvin points to a life-sized portrait of Brummel at the entrance to the exhibit, standing tall in a knee-length navy blue military coat.

IRVIN: He, in fact, stood against the frills and the silks of the court dress and instead embraced this very restrained but immaculately tailored image.

LYDEN: In other words, the forerunner of today's suit. This masculine, elegant style caught on quickly but just as quickly came to represent a hedonistic stereotype mocked in the popular press. Kate Irvin walks past a row of framed British political caricatures of the mid-1800s showing a limp-wristed (unintelligible).

IRVIN: The idea of connecting this focus on dress to femininity isn't pointing to gender preferences or sexual preferences. It's really just pointing to the fact that this person is out of place in his focus on fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Here at the exhibit, all the focus is on fashion. Rounding a corner, the showroom opens to reveal spectacularly tailored suits in a rainbow of styles Beau Brummel could never have dreamed of - bespoke suits. Laurie Brewer explains.

BREWER: Every single detail of that garment would be discussed with your tailor. So it's all about the dialogue with your tailor and that agreeance upon what that suit should become.

LYDEN: Maybe the best example is a lot of people - women - might have custom designed a wedding dress. I want the sleeves just so. I want the collar just so.

BREWER: Dialogue is a conversation, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP HAT, WHITE TIE AND TAILS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) I'm putting down my top hat, mussing up my white tie, dancing in my tails.

LYDEN: On display here are bespoke suits worn by Fred Astaire, John Waters, a shirt from Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol and Samuel Clemens. Each visitor to the exhibit has his or her favorite outfit.

ED CABRAL: When I came across this particular suit, I really fell in love with it.

LYDEN: Ed Cabral stands in front of the suit by Japanese designer Motofumi Kogi. The print is subdued from afar.

CABRAL: But when you look closer, you realize that it's Hello Kitty taking a tour of London.

LYDEN: Ed Cabral, where do you see yourself wearing this red, white and blue Hello Kitty suit?

(LAUGHTER)

CABRAL: Well, my partner is here, and we've been together for 10 years. And now that Rhode Island has passed marriage equality, I think the proper answer would be wedding.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: His cheering partner, Tripp Evans, has his eye on a different suit.

TRIPP EVANS: I think we may, you know, sort of pop everyone's eyes out if we stood together in these two outfits. But I've got...

LYDEN: Evans leads us to a grey and white seersucker suit, big bold stripes, very modern looking, but it's actually from the 19th century. But the real showstopper isn't part of the exhibit. Aaron Peterman walks into the museum dressed to impress in a suit he designed and sewed himself: neon yellow with what appears to be a kaleidoscopic print of colorful flowers. But up close?

AARON PETERMAN: Tiny drag queens. So everyone from Dame Edna to Divine's on there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Lady Bunny.

PETERMAN: Lady, yes, all the greats.

LYDEN: Lady Bunny. Talk about a bespoke suit.

PETERMAN: I literally got out of the car right across the street from the museum and got honked at twice. Someone was like, that's the best suit I've ever seen. So you got to save it for those perfect occasions.

LYDEN: So who's your dandy? My favorite definition from the exhibit comes from Thomas Carlyle. A dandy is a clothes-wearing man. Every faculty of his soul, spirit and purse is consecrated to the wearing of clothes wisely and well; so that others dress to live, he lives to dress.

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