The cycles of fashion
Hundreds go for a ride in old-fangled garb, proclaiming the return of the dandy

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

A thicket of tweed chokes the alley near Eighth and H streets NE. Men in newsboy caps and knickers crunch over shards of glass in their leather hunting boots, looking like they're on an urban fox hunt. Ladies twirl parasols and tug at their full-length silk slips, which are growing clingy in the insistent November sun. They wipe their brows and mind their 1970s bicycles and snap self-portraits on their cellphones in a queue that stretches down to I Street.

Bike bells jangle. Crispy red leaves fall from backyard trees. A gray cat perches on a fire escape, keeping a yellow eye on this clash of eras, this queue to the starting line of the District's first-ever tweed ride, in which dapper cyclists will sally forth across town simply because it promises to be a jolly good time.

Is this mere dress-up? Folderol on wheels? Another hipster stab at spontaneous coordination, flash-mob conformity in the name of pretentious originality? The motive, the purpose, the paradox of it all -- such cogitation furrows one's brow, dislodges one's monocle. Zounds. Perhaps there are answers in this alley.

Heather Guichard, 24, sits astride her silver '71 or '72 Gitane cruiser, wearing a cardigan, tweed knickers and a flapperish hat. She says our hyper, sloppy, postmodern society has begotten a longing for the classic elements of any era, for purposeful fashion and polished behavior.

"I miss the style," she says wistfully, then catches herself. "Well, I can't say I miss it because I wasn't alive then."

No matter. A mash-up generation has mash-up tendencies. We steal the tailored vests of the Victorian era for our office wardrobe, we play Gatsby in whatever neo-speakeasy has opened around the corner, we add a tie clip to evoke Don Draper and we hop on our mustard-colored vintage Schwinn for a tweed ride. It's the inaugural recruiting event of the District's newest social club, Dandies and Quaintrelles, which materialized in the blogosphere a week and a half ago and attracted hundreds of people to this alley on short notice, as if everyone were sitting at home with their outfits already laid out.

The chap in charge is District resident Eric Brewer, 41, a longtime cyclist who espouses a modern dandy's lifestyle: the fashion (skinny ties and porkpie hats) and the ethos (socially mobile, culturally savvy).

"I think dandyism could build bridges from different crowds through attire," says Brewer, who works in video production and is a partner in the H Street art gallery Dissident Display. "You dress to find your social clique in D.C., from Georgetown preppy to hipster central along 14th Street and H Street. And I think dandyism can sort of unify people, where you don't stay within the confines of an accepted appearance."

A new masculinity?

A dandy breeze is blowing. London had the world's first tweed ride in January. San Francisco followed in the spring, Boston last month. Earlier this month, there were tweed rides in Sacramento, Cincinnati and Chicago. This Saturday, there's one in Los Angeles. This costumed lark may be a thread in a broader trend -- a cyclical return to old-fashioned cocktails and chandelier lighting and waistcoats -- that is nurturing a new brand of masculinity (rugged but elegant and old-world American) from the slick ashes of the European metrosexual.

Look at the Dickensian dandiness in Alexander McQueen's fall fashion line, says D.C. fashion writer Rachel Cothran, and the popularity of lifestyle Web sites like The Art of Manliness, which recently posted a straight-razor tutorial titled "Shave Like Your Great Grandpa."

"The whole idea of a dandy goes beyond fashion, and it's about being smart and thoughtful and intellectual and well-read, and I think that totally appeals to men in Washington," Cothran says. "It's a way to be dapper without coming off like you're prissy or flighty, which is important because this city is always about being taken seriously."

Dandyism suggests style over substance, but there is something to be said for taking greater care with fashion, says TV producer and Georgetown resident Walker Lamond, 34, whose traditionalist, Barbasol-scented blog Rules for My Unborn Son was released last week in book form (Rule No. 23: Learn to tie a bow tie).

"I do appreciate looking good and dressing like an adult, which in these days might pass as dandyism," Lamond says.

Social identities

The tweed riders in the alley are here because they value style, art, history and/or cycling, and because they find more inspiration by looking back than looking around. Danny Harris, 30, wears a wool tie and vest he bought in England, Vietnamese motorcycle goggles on his head and khaki shorts. On the other side of his taxicab-colored fixie is Kristin Hershberger, 27, who wears a 1970s high-waisted denim skirt and a new velvet vest trimmed with fur, yet still manages to look like she's from the Jazz Age. They talk about how going out used to mean orchestras and fine clothing, and how being macho meant knowing how to dance.

"I think our generation is lacking in a certain respect," Hershberger says.

A generation, in an alley, in search of a social identity.

Perhaps this is too much thought for a Sunday afternoon. Many are riding not for dandyism but for the mass absurdity, nothing more. Even irony and sincerity are mashed up here.

Around noon, Brewer rings a brass bell and the riders roll out of the alley, marking a leisurely pace down Eighth Street toward Eastern Market, gliding over the pulp of pulverized leaves, as pedestrians stop and watch and wonder what exactly distinguishes this mob from any other that organizes in Washington. A Metrobus huffs and puffs behind the bike jam, honking its horn. "You rapscallion!" cries one tweed rider, shaking his fist at the bus driver.

Hundreds of them breeze down Constitution Avenue and up Seventh Street NW, tossing "good day to you" to anyone in earshot. A man standing on the sidewalk calls out "Who are you?" as they angle toward the White House and send up cheers of "hip hip, hooray" against the file-cabinet-like office buildings of midtown. They breeze through red lights without police escort, rankle automobile drivers and take two spins around Dupont Circle, turning the traffic vortex into a merry-go-round of foppery.

The ride ends at Marvin, next to the Gibson speakeasy, at 14th and U streets NW. Riders crowd the upstairs bar and swarm around silver bowls of gin punch. Proceeds from gin drinks will go to Arts for the Aging, a Bethesda nonprofit. Brewer hopes to have another charitable tweed ride in the spring, as well as croquet events and evening picnics throughout the year.

The sun reflects off a condo building into Marvin's open-air deck, turning the inside crowd into silhouettes. The whole scene looks like a lithograph of cross-bred epochs: a pair of bloomers here, a pair of Katharine Hepburn ladyslacks there, bowler hats chatting with newsboy caps, fake handlebar mustaches being judged by real handlebar mustaches.

Sitting against the wall, quaffing gin cocktails, are District residents Zak Stutman, 31, Claire D'Alba, 30, and Anne Simmons, 31. They plundered their closets for the occasion, having already accumulated enough tweedwear from thrift stores (and J. Crew). This movement, if it is a movement, is a rejection of casual monotony, they say.

"We're so encompassed by technology and going into work and sitting under fluorescent light," says D'Alba, whose book club just finished "The Age of Innocence." "There's an excitement in this earlier era."

"I would wear this anyway," Stutman says, tugging at his wool vest. "This is an excuse to wear the clothes that I wear."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company