Even though the most recognizable dandies in history — the Brummels and Beatons of the world — were male, that doesn’t mean women are excluded from the realm of dandyism. In fact, the female dandy is its own archetype, known as the quaintrelle. The term comes from the word quaint — a much more elegant coinage than its precursors, dandyess and dandizette. Think of Marlene Dietrich both on- and off-screen in her suit and tails, or painter Tamara de Lempicka, a stunning Polish émigré who palled around with Picasso and favored unusual tricorn-style hats. In borrowing fashion tropes from men’s dress, the quaintrelle accessed a kind of masculine power: As a German magazine in de Lempicka’s day remarked, “Her hands are gloved, she is helmeted, and inaccessible; a cold and disturbing beauty [through which] pierces a formidable being — this woman is free!”
The female dandy phenomenon picked up with the advent of the flapper. Explains Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, “Coco Chanel is thought of as the first female dandy, all in black and very androgynous. In the ‘20s, which is Chanel’s great first period, there certainly were a lot of women wearing masculine styles, like tailored suits. That was particularly associated with lesbianism but also with fashion, the idea of this sort of civilization without sexes and this new kind of androgynous woman.” With the advent of the ‘30s came Dietrich, a dandy par excellence. “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men,” the actress once said, neatly summing up the allure of the quaintrelle: Her attire isn’t meant to please others, only herself.
As one online dictionary has it, a quaintrelle is “a woman who emphasizes a life of passion expressed through personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, and cultivation of life’s pleasures,” which should really be a goal for all of us. Now, when Rihanna throws on a strong-shouldered suit or Caroline de Maigret channels a well-dressed dude, it’s just one more page in an infinite sartorial playbook.
Click through the slideshow to see more female dandies throughout history.