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.”
For the record, Michael Haar would like you to know that he lives in Queens, not Brooklyn.
The 29-year-old self-described “ragtime barber” isn’t a fan of the dandy label, preferring to call his clique of Lindy Hop dancers, vintage musicians, and sideshow and burlesque enthusiasts “the Nostalgia Crew.” He cuts hair at F.S.C. Barber, the Horatio Street branch of the hip Freemans Sporting Club clothing store franchise, hosts a Vaudeville radio show on EastVillage-
Radio.com and deejays live events using a pair of vintage phonographs.
But while the details might lend themselves to caricature—down to the Hungarian mustache wax he uses—spend any time in his chair and Mr. Haar reveals himself to be a thoughtful man of considerable charm. The double-phonograph act, for example, grew out of volunteer work entertaining the residents at his great-aunt’s seniors’ home. Ask him about his tattoos, and his explanation begins in the late 19th century, when the vogue jumped from France to America.
“I think of my style as Fred Astaire, but in the 1890s,” said Mr. Haar, who appears as recurring extra on Boardwalk Empire, wearing his everyday clothes. “I think of myself as always dressing appropriately for the occasion, but in a style of 100 years ago.”
His path to the Grover Cleveland administration began as a teenager, when he became interested in music from that era. A passion for old movies followed, and eventually so did the wardrobe. Still, he agreed with the older dandies’ complaint that some younger people involved in the scene can be perceived as callow.
“You can come across like you’re forcing it,” he said. “Some 22-year-old will say something like, ‘Oh, I felt like such a cad the other day.’ And you’re like, ‘You don’t really talk like that, come on.’ There are people who use it as a costume party, and there are people who are this way all the time.”
Mr. Haar, who is straight, said age and sexuality don’t matter to the Nostalgia Crew. “It really is one of the most accepting crews for anyone who’s into an alternative lifestyle,” he said. “The ages range from 18 to 68—a total mix of hes, shes and everything in between.”
Nathaniel Adams can see both sides. He’s the general manager of Against Nature, a men’s custom tailor in Greenwich Village. He said that folks like Mr. Haar serve a cultural purpose: inspiring non-dandies to dress better. “Because he’s brave enough to dress without inhibition, that might inspire the average man who lacks self-confidence to try a little harder to express themselves through clothing,” he said.
Mr. Adams contributed the text for a book, to be published this fall by Gestalten Press, based on photographer Rose Callahan’s website DandyPortraits.com. That online space is one of the few places outside the Easter Parade where dandies can be seen side-by-side with the Nostalgia Crew generation, and Ms. Callahan has shot dozens of men on both sides of the divide.
“I think the issue with new school versus old school, and the two not necessarily banding together as one might hope, is because of the nature of peacocking,” she said. “Put a bunch of highly individual men with strong tastes and opinions together—well, you can just imagine.”
And if you can’t, Patrick McDonald will hold his monocle up to the point.
“It gets to be disconcerting sometimes, when someone will say ‘I’m the dandy about town,’ or ‘I’m bringing back hats,’” he said, irritation creeping into his voice.
“Really? Well, what have I been wearing on my head for two decades? A tea cozy?”