Tweeding Frenzy: Old-School Dandies Disparage Shrunken Blazer Crew

Patrick McMullan, full-time dandy.

Patrick McDonald, full-time dandy.

At the Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival on March 31, slender senior gentlemen with velvet jackets and boutonnieres will mix with muscular young spiffs sporting handlebar mustaches and fitted tweeds. The two groups may seem to belong together, but when they meet on the streets, parasols will be drawn.

In recent years, a gap has emerged between New York’s more established boulevardiers and a younger set of hipster dandies who go by sobriquets like “the Nostalgia Crew” and sport vivid tattoos under their bowler hats and suspenders.

“I am the dandy of New York,” said Patrick McDonald from his closet-sized apartment in the East Village, surrounded by what he estimates is a fashion collection of more than 300 hats, 100 pairs of shoes, 50 jackets and 150 ties. “I think other people try to take the title, but I am the one.”

It’s a reasonable claim. Mr. McDonald, 56, has entered the culture for his unstinting commitment to dandyism since moving to New York from California in 1978. He parlayed a social youth—Studio 54 twice a week, Fire Island with Calvin and Cher, makeup tips from Elizabeth Taylor—into frequent appearances in Bill Cunningham’s New York Times street style page, countless mentions in books and articles, plus cameos in Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and even a New Yorker cartoon.

To this day, Mr. McDonald retains the painted-on Cleopatra eyeliner that Ms. Taylor applied one magical Halloween during a party at her Los Angeles home. He has a beauty mark. And he dresses while listening to Dusty Springfield or Edith Piaf, to create the mood. “It’s a long process, because there are lots of components. It’s the pocket square, it’s a tie, it’s a shirt, it’s the jacket, it’s the overcoat, it’s the gloves that match, it’s the belt, it’s the boutonniere and the hat and the socks have to be right, and the shoe,” he explained. “The shoe always has to be polished.”

Next month, Mr. McDonald will be featured in an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design called “Artist/Rebel/Dandy,” which tracks the dandy tradition from Beau Brummel to present times. Except he’s not such a fan of the very latest batch.

“Part of being a dandy is manners and etiquette, and a lot of people today lack it completely,” he said, recalling an unpleasant encounter with hipster dandies at the most recent New York Fashion Week.

“A gaggle of them will be walking through the door, talking to each other, checking their phones. They’ve got the latest shrunken suit on and they’re feeling great, but they let the door slam in my face as they go through.”

Mr. McDonald has a talent for conjuring jobs in fashion, currently serving as a kind of house dandy/major domo for the jewelry designer Kimberly McDonald (no relation). Fellow dandy Cator Sparks, who is editor in chief of the men’s lifestyle site TheManual.com, recalled meeting him in 1999 at a party at Vivienne Westwood’s now-defunct Greene Street store.

“We met one night, and I didn’t know if he was hitting on me or not, and it was a little uncomfortable,” Mr. Sparks said. “Then he said, ‘Look, we’re two dandies. It’s like bumping pussies, we’re never going to do that. We’re going to be great friends.’”

Mr. Sparks accessorizes his robin’s-egg blue pants and salmon blazer with cuff links made from the teeth of a deer he shot on a recent visit to a hunting lodge in Scotland. He suspects that the newer, primly dressed hipsters lack the cultural interests that have traditionally underpinned the dandy aesthetic. He cites Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum about having the simplest taste (“I am always satisfied with the best”) as defining the dandy code in art, literature, cinema and conversation.

But the modern dandy is proud to quote from history, and not just Wildean bon mots. Mr. McDonald credits James Cagney’s wardrobe of plaid formal wear and hats in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy as a seminal influence, while the RISD exhibit highlights diverse influences ranging from Britain’s dandy prince regent (later George IV) to Lord Byron and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois.

“I don’t often see these guys at a Frick event or a Noel Coward thing at the National Arts Club,” Mr. Sparks said of the natty newcomers. “Maybe they’re not attuned to it.”

He continued, “I don’t know if these people walk the walk or just dress the part. Maybe next week they’re going to be prepsters, and the week after that they’re going to be lumberjacks. I don’t know how integrated it is into their lifestyle.”