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Looking Sharp

Looking Sharp

The Oxford Dictionary defines a dandy as “a man unduly devoted to style, neatness and fashion in dress and appearance.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a dandy as “a man unduly devoted to style, neatness and fashion in dress and appearance.” But the RISD Museum is out to dispel negative views of dandyism in its major spring/summer show Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion, which opens on Sunday, April 28.

The iconic painter and self-professed dandy Richard Merkin MFA 63 PT, who taught at RISD for 42 years before his death in 2009, actually inspired the show, according to Curator of Costume and Textiles Kate Irvin and Assistant Curator Laurie Brewer. They lovingly describe him as “an exemplary artist/rebel/dandy persona who placed equal creative emphasis on his painting, illustrations, journalism and, of course, raiment. Merkin knowingly broke the rules of
the game in his art and his dress, enthusiastically exploring the outer limits of convention while staying within its bounds.” A section of the exhibition is devoted to the late professor and helps tie together the show’s broader look at the “unity of art, life and clothing,” as Irvin puts it.

The exhibition includes more than 200 suits, hats, shoes, shirts and other objects – from Merkin’s closet and those of celebrities such as Fred Astaire, Andy Warhol and John Waters – that probe the strong aesthetic and artistic drive behind each dandy’s approach to personal presentation. It steps back in time to explore the sophisticated style of Beau Brummell (1778–1840) – who purportedly polished his boots with champagne – and travels forward to contemporary examples of artists who exemplify both the revolutionary and at times romantic spirit typical of a true dandy. Beautifully tailored garments are featured alongside portraits, photographs and fashion plates depicting the larger-than-life personalities who wore them, including literary icons like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Tom Wolfe.

Irvin and Brewer credit Museum photographer Erik Gould with helping to bring their vision for the show to life. “His work was crucial to our process,” says Irvin. “And the haunting, evocative photographs he created really spoke to exhibition designers” Patrick Seymour 87 GD and Catarina Tsang BArch 89 of the NYC-based creative agency Tsang Seymour, who also designed a fully illustrated book to accompany the show. The two alumni picked up on the feeling of the photographs in designing the five sections of the exhibition space – focused on Historians, Connoisseurs, Revolutionaries, Romantics and Explorers as a way of presenting the concepts that drive the show in place of a historically linear approach.

Brewer marvels over the interconnectedness of the dandy community and the contributors to the exhibition. “In the process of working with Tsang Seymour, we found out that they were friends with [featured dandy] Charles Rosenberg 88 SC when they were at RISD,” she says.

One of Brewer’s favorite exhibition pieces is a bespoke suit donated by the late Bert Surprenant 50 AP, who led RISD’s Apparel Design department in the 1950s and ’60s. Surprenant ordered the suit from Kilgour, French & Stanbury in 1959, about six months before Cary Grant sported his own Kilgour suit in the film North by Northwest. “Surprenant cut an extraordinary figure in that beautifully understated suit,” says Brewer. “He really trumped Cary Grant!”

Opening weekend of Artist/Rebel/Dandy (April 26–28) features a wide range of supporting programs, including talks by cutting-edge designers, visits from influential trendsetters, a Friday night gala, a Saturday night dance party and a chic bicycle parade (sans spandex). The top-notch programming will continue through August 18 with film screenings, artist talks, a bourbon tasting and a behind-the-scenes “master class” on the exhibition.