Men's Style Anxiety: A Genealogy

I. Introduction

If you are wondering why men dress the way they do today, if you wonder why men are often uncomfortable dressing with more style and formality, if you are trying to decide if you really want to up your style, the following history will help you begin to see how men's style got to where it is, where male anxiety about dress comes from, and what this all means for a man who might want to dress better today.

II. Men's Style before our Democratic Era

The following story of men’s style is a very western one: it is focused at first on Europe and eventually comes in the mid-20th century to focus on the U.S.  It is also a story rooted in economic realities, as I believe most things in social relations and behavior come down to economics.  It begins in what is called the ancien régime, the last few centuries when Europe was still dominated by monarchies and the nobility before roughly 1800.

Louis XIV
In the latter half of the 17th century, the Sun King, Louis XIV, made France and specifically his court at Versailles the undisputed center of western politics, culture and fashion.  Part of his governing strategy was to keep as much of the French nobility at Versailles as much of the time as possible, indebted to him and constantly kissing up to him for favors.  Thus the architecture of Versailles itself had to be not only impressively imposing, it had to be enticing.  The fashion in men's dress he instituted was ridiculously expensive and ornate.  Every aspect of Versailles had to serve as golden handcuffs keeping Louis' friends under his eye and potential enemies under his thumb at court.

French life as dictated by Louis at court set the fashion for the rest of Europe.  Nobles all over Europe built mini-Versailles and imitated the Sun King as much as possible.  Even Frederick the Great, the great Prussian King of the mid-18th century made French, not his native German, the language of his Versailles-esque court just outside of Berlin.  All things French, including court fashions, dominated the sensibilities of western nobility in this final century of the ancien régime.  French style was the style.

For all of history, going back as far as we have records, all the way up to and including the ancien régime, most western societies have been divided into basically (if you will indulge me in keeping things simple) two strata: nobility and commoners.  Usually, the nobility owned everything, and commoners, the vast majority of humanity, worked for them, making their expensive lives possible.

Other very small groups between the nobility and the masses have always existed such as various priesthoods and other bureaucratic professions who served the nobility and did not have to make a living as laborers, but who also did not enjoy all of the privileges of nobility.  There have also often been those who made a living off of trade and similar pursuits who may have owned a small amount of capital.  Not tied to land and needing to be centrally located for trade, this small segment generally congregated in towns and cities (in Old French they were called burgeis – town-dwellers) and began expanding their power and wealth, though modestly, from the Middle Ages on.  This group would become the bourgeoisie of the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution and greater political involvement dramatically increased their wealth and power.

Before 1800, however, this middle class was rather small, as was the aristocracy.  Almost everyone was a peasant with no hope of improving their situation and with no thought of their children or grandchildren living an existence any better.  In the ancien régime your lot in life was practically set in stone at birth.  If you had a noble birth, you would live the life of a noble, a common birth, the life of a commoner.  Upward mobility was hardly a concept.

Sumptuary laws controlled what could or could not be worn by individuals.  It was actually illegal for a peasant to dress like a noble, and no commoner would think of doing so anyway.  A peasant was as likely to become an elephant as they were to become a noble, so wearing a richly brocaded coat was as nonsensical as wearing a trunk and huge ears.  Additionally, aristocrats dressed in elaborately expensive ways that could never be imitated by commoners.  Some town’s people did dress nicer than peasants, aping the aristocracy to some degree, but severely limited by cost and by the law.  In the ancien régime, you knew exactly who someone was by how they dressed.  Who they were was determined at birth, through no choice or action of their own, and this was proclaimed by the clothes they were allowed and could afford to wear.

III. Atomization of Power and the Rise of the Individual

By the end of the 18th century, however, powerful forces had been at work.  The scattering of centralized power out to individuals – let us call it“atomization” – would soon topple the ancien régime, changing the West for ever.  Protestantism had begun in the early 1500s as a powerful force of atomization.  Where a relationship to God and salvation had been centralized in the institution of the Church, Protestantism proposed that every individual needed only scripture and faith to maintain their own personal relationship to God.  It made religion an individual matter (though in reality most religious leaders quickly realized the personal benefits of re-centralizing power around themselves).

In 1776, Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations formulating for the West free market economics, a force that had already begun to decentralize the wealth of the aristocracy and place more wealth and opportunity in the hands of more individuals. The third form of atomization I am concerned with also found expression in 1776 with the American Declaration of Independence.  Though the American Revolution did nothing to overturn the ancien régime in Europe, it did provide an inspiring example that bolstered the European move towards republican government (“republican” not referring to the modern political party but to a governmental system of representation as opposed to monarchy).

Louis XVI, Before the Guillotine
Republican governing structures would accelerate the decentralization of power that had once been in the hands of the few and distribute it more evenly to individuals.  This came to a head in France with the Revolution begun in 1789 and was dramatically symbolized by the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793.  This was the beginning of the end of the ancien régime, and the dawning of the Age of the Individual, an age of new freedoms, opportunities, responsibilities and anxieties.  Individuals were now in a position to do much for themselves that used to be done only by centralized institutions.  They were also faced with new decisions about themselves and their lives that used to be simply determined by their birth.

Thus, by around 1800, the west was characterized by a rapidly growing atomized spirituality and moral thought, atomized economics and political power in an entirely new way.  This massive social upheaval could not help but be reflected in what men wore, what they were now free to choose to wear, and the revolution from the aristocratic styles of the ancien régime to the more middle class style of the 19th century was one of the most dramatic shifts in style menswear had ever experienced.

IV. Men's Style after the French Revolution: Beau Brummell

A Film Version of George "Beau" Brummell
This shift was embodied and led by George “Beau” Brummell, born in 1778.  Brummell’s father was one of those few commoners who as a bureaucrat escaped a life of labor, benefiting from many lucrative positions serving English nobility and from a marriage to a woman from another rich middle-class family.  Thus, though not noble, George grew up on a small country estate (meaning only some 800 acres) with some of the privileges of the nobility such as an education at Eton and Oxford.  In the mid-1790s he rode in the Prince of Wales’ Dragoon Guard where he became friends with the Prince himself, the future George IV. Just as he embodied the revolution in style around 1800, he also embodied the realization of many middle-class aspirations.

Brummell’s personal style was characterized by two things: understatement and fastidiousness.  He fully rejected all of the silk, brocade, lace, plumage, bright colors, powdered wigs, makeup and other pomp of the ancien régimes aristocrats - French style - in favor of very understated dress influenced by his time in the military and especially by the relaxed clothes worn by one who lives on the vast estate of an English country house and often enjoys the elite but earthy pastime of riding.  This newer look traded powdered wigs in for short hair, silk for wool, bright for muted colors, and aimed for a general lack of ornamentation.  His fastidiousness was expressed in his hygiene, his obsession with fit, and his constant laundering.   He was the quintessential “Dandy,” whose understated minimalism was the opposite of the flamboyant, continental extravagance of the ancien régimes “Fop” or “Macaroni.”  Though “Dandy” would come to mean its opposite, eventually becoming a synonym for “Fop,” for the style revolution led by Brummell it denoted masculine simplicity at its strictest, the standard still dominating classical tailored men's style today.

This penchant for outdoor, practical, more egalitarian clothing had already been shaping English dress for decades.  Brummell was, as many icons are, not the inventor of an entirely new idea but the culminating embodiment of long-developing trends.  For the English in general, the style exemplified by Brummell in the Regency era was also as much of a rejection of French cultural dominance as it was anything else, made possible by the wealth and power England was steadily building through its growing empire and its rapid industrialization.

The moment was also perfect for English men's style to set the trend for the continent.  The English tradition of a powerful representative body going back to the 13th century Magna Carta, had already cast England as the democratic nation of Europe in the 18th century.  It represented an ideal in opposition to the autocratic monarchy in France.  Thus, all things English appealed to republican sensibilities in much of Europe around 1800.  And aristocrats, after seeing their friends and family beheaded and displaced by the masses during the Revolution were eager to also appeal to republican sensibilities!  Paradoxically, England's gradual eclipsing of France on the world stage gave its more middle-class fashions the still-appealing and crucial connotation of power.

Finally, by the late 18th century, court life - at all courts but especially at Versailles - had come to be seen as the epitome of artificiality and superficiality.  The picture of Frenchified nobles in powdered wigs, make-up, and long, stiff silk coats bowing and scraping before the king while stabbing each other in the back encapsulated everything people felt was wrong with the ancien régime.  Regardless of how accurate it really was, the image of the English lord at his country house far from the royal court, hunting for his own food on his own earth, generously treating his tenants with his famous English hospitality, and dressed in the more natural, wooly costume of the rider represented naturalness, authenticity and a greater degree of democratic freedom (even if most peers still actually spent half the year or more in London, bowing, scraping and back-stabbing in make-up and silk coats).  For all of these reasons and more, England could not help but become the leader of masculine style in the 19th century.

George IV, the King Styled by Brummell
Captain Brummell eventually irritated the Prince of Wales to the point of being cut off as he exhausted all of the wealth he inherited from his father with gambling and his exorbitant spending on clothes, and in the end he had to flee debtor's prison to France.  Before doing so, he established the new very British and very un-aristocratic look of the Dandy, a look even adopted by the Prince of Wales and many other aristocrats.  The French had dominated and steered men’s style in the West since Louis XIV.  From the Revolution until the end of World War II, Britain would be the undisputed leader in men’s style.  It is this British tradition instituted by Brummell that gives us today’s suit and tie among other things.  (A charming video with a bit more on Brummell can be found here.)

Many at the time considered this style revolution a loss of dignity, of refinement, of formality and of style that expresses power – the very thing one complains men are doing to menswear today.  From the perspective of the ancien régime, the Dandy's sparse style was just that.  The taste of the middle class had become ascendant, and there was a decided shift towards comfort and the look of sports (i.e., riding).  This is the accusation leveled at today’s adult male in his running shoes, shorts, t-shirt, and ball cap – and accurately so.  But let us be honest enough to remember that the rise of middle-class taste and the widespread proclivity for sportswear did become the rule already with Brummell and has been dominant for over two centuries now.

V. The First Style Anxiety of the Individual Man: Resentment of [Former] Peers

The post-revolutionary, democratic, capitalist, protestant world of the 19th and 20th centuries has been one of great individual anxiety.  When, before the Revolution, one was born into a class with little hope of escaping it, many decisions were already made by the class system: what one did for a living, what one wore, with whom one associated, how one entertained oneself, etc.  Most of one's life was dictated by one's birth, and who one is was already determined, making social navigation quite easy.  But in the new, atomized world of individual rights and individual possibility, nothing is set in stone - especially in the States, a country that has never had a legal aristocracy.  One born into the starkest poverty may dream of one day living in great wealth, dressed to the nines, socializing with the “best and brightest.”  This anxious aspiration is, of course, formalized as the American middle-class ethos, the American Dream.

But this freedom and opportunity in the bold, new democratic world is fraught with risk.  On the one hand, the message is very strong that you should rise and make as much of yourself as you can – this is your freedom.  On the other hand, the message is that no one in a democratic, Protestant society is better than anyone else – that is equality.  In the paradox between freedom and equality, self-improvement is condemned as it is promoted.

Yes, the farmer’s son has a chance, no matter how slight, at becoming a rich banker in the city, but his family, friends and other peers back in his farming community will have a difficult time continuing to accept him as one of theirs if he does.  Were he to return, talking and acting like the rich, dressed like the rich, his social interactions would be uncomfortable and feel unnatural in ways they were not before he left and changed.  With his original country manners and speech, his assimilation into a rich, urban social sphere has probably been no easier.  To some degree, he will always be a man with a foot in both worlds, and never a man standing solidly in either.

While we in the States may not be born into classes by law and are generally uncomfortable with the idea of classes in our society, most of us harbor a deep if unconscious belief that class lines are not to be crossed - especially not by our own peers.  Upward mobility generally has real social costs, and people are not happy for the successes of others as often as they should be.  You may choose to dress better than your peers, but you do so at the risk of stirring anxiety that will be expressed as animosity by them.  Sure, your old friend is just as free to dress better, but only at the risk of alienating his current peers.  It is easier for him to try to pressure you to come back to the familiarity of his level.

As it is hard to be fully accepted by a new peer group, it is just as hard to remain accepted by the one in which one no longer seems to fit.  Simply wearing new clothes can easily stir up all of this anxiety of the internalized class expectations of others.  Internalized social expectations can be as powerful and binding as external systems of law.  The freedom we now have externally is still balanced to an astonishing degree by the constraints we cling to internally.

VI. The Second Style Anxiety of the Individual Man: Questions of Authenticity

If a peasant in the 1700s traveling a road saw someone approaching dressed like a prince, he would never ask, “Just who does he think he is?”  The answer would be rather apparent – he thinks he is a prince, because he is a prince.  The peasant would just get the hell off of the road as quickly as possible before being run down by the prince's horse.  But seeing a man dressed up all the way in the 1800s - certainly in the 1900s and 2000s - many may more easily ask themselves, “Just who does he think he is?” and give him a dirty look when passing him on the street.  This mistrust of the well-dressed is real in Europe, but in America, with its exaggeration of the paradoxical values of equality and freedom, it is even more pronounced.

This is clearly related to the resentment just discussed above felt by some who encounter others dressed as their superiors in a world where such superiority is no longer institutionally established.  But there is more to it than that.  After the French Revolution, any man was much more able to claim for himself the highest virtues of manhood.  Earlier, these qualities were intrinsically those of the nobility, but the more democratic and individualistic society became, the more any man could be “noble,” simply based on his perceived character.  Where a “gentleman” was formerly a man belonging to the “gentry,” the untitled but landed nobility, the modern “gentleman” could be any man of any birth who appeared and behaved correctly.

Similarly “courtesy,” the behavior of those at court, has become something that can be shown by those who will never in their lifetimes come near a royal court.  At the other end of the scale, “vulgar” and “mean” used to refer to commoners, meaning simply “common.”  They were descriptive rather than insulting terms, as it was not a commoner's moral failing to have been born common.  Now in the new, democratic world any man can be labelled “vulgar” or “mean” without regard to his birth.  The literal, biological meaning of “breeding” has also been replaced by the moral concept of the manners, speech and dress one is taught by one's parents and peers.

Such words, “noble,” “gentle,” “vulgar,” and “mean,” are almost only used with these moral meanings today, entrenching the idea that one has a choice to appear and behave in an elevated manner or not.  This kind of purely moral understanding divorced from any memory of class implications is only possible in the post-revolutionary, atomized world of free individuals responsible for themselves.  In the ancien régime, these words described the class into which one was born.  The nature one was assumed to have based on birth was not a moral choice but a social fact.  Now, as the internalization of the class system and its transformation from a description of the external world into an internal complex of moral decisions was accelerating after the Revolution, a gentleman could be any man who embodies, or seems to embody, certain virtues, just as any man could now behave in a vulgar manner.

As had been the case with inborn nobility before the Revolution, this new nobility of character could best be shown and recognized through external markers like manners, speech, and, of course, dress.  In fact, a large part of Brummell's ideal of the Dandy was a man who embodied and projected the virtues attributed to the aristocracy through his paradoxically understated dress, that, at great cost and with much effort, proclaimed earthy “authenticity.”  But now the markers of nobility were no longer controlled by birth or law and could be adopted by anyone, at least by anyone who could afford them.  All could theoretically be noble now, and this new kind of nobility was not certified by any institutional authority.  The man who wore, said and did all of the right things – whose bearing might best be described as noble – might also just be the most suspicious type of all.

Where no one would question if the prince in the 1700s was noble or not (he simply was) the man who wore all the right clothes and who displayed all the right manners post-revolution could raise the suspicions of many as to whether his intentions were genuinely noble or not.  In an age when nobility could be learned out of style and etiquette guides and acquired from merchants, authenticity of character could be questioned in a whole new way.  This created greater anxiety about being sure just whom one was dealing with and how one presented oneself to and was perceived by others.

Of course, Brummell's new look was not cheap, and, as his eventual poverty demonstrates, required substantial financial resources.  The poorest men were still locked out of the game, as they are today.  The aristocracy had always already won the game without playing it, since the life they are born with is its goal.  It was in the growing middle class with its longing to finally stand among the aristocracy that the desire to look and behave correctly was the strongest as was the distrust of anyone who was trying to look or behave correctly.  To be a desirable goal, only a few from the middle-class can really make it, as it would be meaningless - if not vulgar - if everyone did.  It is for middle-class men to be on the offensive by always looking and behaving correctly and to be on the defensive by constantly questioning others who try to look and behave correctly.  This moral king of the social hill is a thoroughly middle-class game.

This enterprise and its attendant anxiety is still the game the middle-class plays today, and the strong internalization of class expectations makes it a deeply moral one difficult to differentiate from the religious beliefs with which it has come to be thoroughly blended.  Thus, in bourgeois modernity, God himself can require you to dress up on Sunday and be offended when you use vulgar language, while the devil is pictured as the most well-manicured smooth-talker of them all.

VII. The Third Style Anxiety of the Individual Man: Projection of Socially Acceptable Masculinity

In addition to threatening the peers one grows up with and to coming off as an inauthentic and an untrustworthy cad, the well-dressed man faces another new anxiety after the Revolution: being considered effeminate.  Effeminacy in the early- and mid-19th century was not a sexual or biological concept but referred to being considered too occupied with concerns deemed feminine to the detriment of masculine concerns.  Looking good and working hard to do so became, it was decided after the Revolution, a feminine pursuit.

In the increasingly industrial and commercialized 19th century, for the first time a man could get the majority, if not all of his clothes off the rack from a merchant.  Before that, richer men had their clothes made bespoke by tailors and poorer men's clothes were made by family members.  Now the exploding middle class was being offered "Ready to Wear" clothes in shop windows. Shopping had already been women's work, and 19th century marketers imbued it with even more femininity as they lured women into the pleasure palaces that were the newly invented department stores.  Now that clothes were procured on a shopping trip, selecting and acquiring them took on a new feminized aspect.

Additionally, looking at all like you put any more than the minimum of effort or thought into your appearance was now considered unmanly.  In the ancien régime, of course, men were as done up as women if not more so, but Brummell’s minimal, militarized aesthetic made simplicity the core of projecting masculinity with one's appearance.   Paradoxically, though Brummell spent inordinate amounts of time and money on his wardrobe, the style he initiated would forever more seek to project not caring too much, as if inattention indicated authenticity.  This ideal is today embodied by the majority who have come to genuinely not care, where it can be called slovenliness, and is one cultivated by the few conscious dressers, who call it sprezzatura.   By the end of the 19th century, the anxiety of appearing effeminate by caring too much was compounded by the newly created medical and legal category of “homosexuality.”  Dressing well and projecting socially acceptable masculinity required an almost impossibly delicate balance.


Thus, after the revolution, personal choices leading to opportunity and risks opened up as never before, and men had to carefully use their appearance to project the masculinity sanctioned by their peers, to achieve proper social integration, and to appear morally trustworthy, all while working very hard not to appear to care about what they wear.  The anxiety of this paradox is more than alive today and is expressed every time a man “dressed up” for something points to his wife and says, “Oh I don’t know.  She just buys it for me and tells me to wear it.  She does the shopping.”  It fills the man who would feel slighted if you accused him of not knowing how to knot a tie, but would feel equally threatened if you accused him of spending time and care shopping for ties.

VIII. Men's Style Continues to Develop Under the Influence of Sports

Despite all of this middle-class anxiety welling up in the new, post-revolutionary world, men did continue to care about what they wore very much after Brummell, and men’s style did continue to develop.  Throughout the 19th century, the striving for sober simplicity and respectability was maintained but continually modified by Brummell's original desire for comfort and this desire’s attendant consequence of bringing sportswear into daily dress.  Men learning to dress today can be a bit perplexed by the way the adjective “sports” is used to describe clothing.  Just why does one call a tweed jacket a sports coat?  How can long-sleeved, buttoned shirts with collars be called sports shirts?

What one must keep in mind is the history of the way “sports” has been used to describe clothes.  Remember that the 19th century began with all of Europe wanting to look like the English lord trotting around his grounds.  Throughout the 19th century, the concept of “sports” primarily meant riding a horse, for a hunt or other sport, though it also referred to other activities like shooting and fishing.  From 1800 until the 1940s (and even after), men wanted to look like a gentleman of the English countryside.  It implied the rich lifestyle of an estate holder along with what seemed to be a rugged, healthy, authentic masculinity.  If you watch through the films I suggest, you will see how lords and gentlemen at their country houses from Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) to Maxim de Winter (Rebecca) present the ideal of English masculine style in their dress (regardless of how much time they actually spend in the saddle) and how most other men were trying to approximate that ideal

Inter-war Sports Clothing (for Fives)
Also, by the end of the 19th century, team sports had become popular, with the school varieties having a particularly elite association with the then very rare privilege of a university education.  Sweaters, for example, became acceptable for men to wear around their homes, while they had previously only been acceptable for sports.  In the 20th century sweaters would become acceptable for public and even professional wear, and, by the 21st century, they can be downright dressy in many contexts.  Blazers and sports coats were also making the transition from only being appropriate for sports to being worn socially around the turn of the century.  Around 1900 “sports” also began to refer to what was worn for games like polo, cricket, rugby, golf and tennis, i.e., what are now called polos (originally for tennis), rugbies, cricket/tennis sweaters, and even button-downs (originally for polo).  It is the more English games, and not American inventions like basketball and baseball, that influenced men's style in the early twentieth century most.

Thus, in the early 20th century “sports” in regard to clothing certainly still meant the tweed of the English country gentleman, but it also referred to items like the multi-colored blazers he wore as a young man to and from the pitch or court, as well as polos, rugbies, etc.  If you watch Chariots of Fire, there is a scene early on where clubs at Cambridge are gathered in a hall - right before the Great Court Run scene.  The clothing worn in the hall and the race scenes is sports clothing, even though the only students actually engaged in sports are the two men who race.

Chariots of Fire
All of the colors, on the hats, sweaters, blazers, scarves, etc. in these scenes function the same way the stripes on a regimental tie do: to denote affiliation, here primarily with schools.  They are in some regards similar to the team jerseys and hats men still wear today, though at that time one would only wear the colors of a school one has actually attended.  No one would wear a cricket sweater from, say, Eton or Caius, simply because they are a fan if they have not been a student there.  Later the commercial value of the desire to belong and of identity building through association would be exploited in making colors into merchandise for those not on the team.  This leads to some need for caution discussed here.

American sporting habits also began to influence men's style in the 20th century, though generally only the most expensive habits.  Despite being surrounded by the sea in every direction, the English gentleman's style was most influential in his landlocked pursuits like hunting, polo, and cricket. Though continuing to live out their Anglophile fantasies by playing tennis, polo, and hunting foxes, rich Americans living on the coast were also often devoted leisure-time sailors.  This brought even more nautical items into the American vocabulary of sports clothing.  This was accompanied by the tendency of rich Americans to mingle with the international rich at seaside resorts where ever lighter versions of traditional sports items were developed.  The new ideal of the tanned, rich American at the beach, which would become so important to the style exported by Hollywood, innovated on a century of British leisure style.

In sum, today one can use the adjective “sports” to describe clothing you actually wear to play basketball with your friends, and one can use “sports” the way fashion designers and style historians do to refer to what rich Brits and Yankees have traditionally worn for their expensive, leisurely pastimes.  “Sports” in this historical sense really refers to what the rich and powerful wore for recreation, which may not always have meant playing a vigorous sport.

George V in his unrelinquished frock coat
and his smartly casual son, the erstwhile Edward VIII
Probably the greatest embodiment of the continual drift towards comfort and sportswear is the 20th century’s most famous Prince of Wales, and certainly one of its most important trend setters, David Windsor.  He was the Prince of Wales from 1911-1936, King Edward VIII during most of 1936, and then the Duke of Windsor from 1936 until his death (see Edward & Mrs. Simpson in the list of films).  In the 1920s and 30s, this Prince of Wales was the most powerful leader in men’s style.  He took all of sports style, from the gentry's tweeds to tennis, golf, and resort style and blended it into his own casual style while trading starched collars for soft ones.  Called the Beau Brummell of the 20th century, he was the culmination of sports style.  Much of this style was influenced by the American casualness he so loved, as he detested British and especially royal formality (at least until he found himself in unofficial exile from it).  Americans loved to see their own proclivity for comfort reflected back to them in the stylish dress of the future king.  His penchant for sports clothing produced a much bolder and less conservative style than that of his father.

Windsor's love of American casualness coincided with another development that would help move the center of men's style from England to the States - the rise of Hollywood.  Early on, the most stylish men of Hollywood - Astaire, Grant, Cooper and others - were all following the lead of Brits like the Prince of Wales, but eventually Hollywood came to exert its own style dominance by mid-century as America took a leading political role on the world stage and Hollywood had established its global entertainment preeminence.  Once the masses traded a constant watch on the aristocracy and old money for a new fascination with celebrities, entertainers became the primary style-setters, as they still are today.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, men's style was also influenced by other developments like those in technology.  For example, improved indoor temperature control combined with war-time rationing eventually changed suit waistcoats from necessities to rare oddities.  Where men had once had to spend considerable amounts of time outdoors year-round, the automobile reduced that time to the brief moments between a building and a car parked nearby.  This, even more than JFK's famous distaste for hats, produced the hat-less head that has dominated men since the 1960s.  (Despite the persistent legend, JFK did wear a hat to his inauguration - a silk topper to go with his morning coat - though he did leave it on his chair while giving his address and being sworn in.)

IX. The Revolution that Overthrew Brummell

From 1929 to 1945 the masculinity of American men was first threatened by a prolonged period of scarce employment and then bolstered by fighting and winning the largest war to date.  After these 16 years of intense fear, sacrifice, and a reordering of priorities, adult men of the 1950s projected entrenched stability with the most limited and sober form of dress yet, one accompanied by a concept of separate spheres for the genders stricter than anything since the Victorian period.  This time of palpable conformity in men’s style soon faced a violent swinging of the pendulum.  In the 1960s, the limited concept of masculine dress that had continued and developed since Brummell was violently dethroned, though not entirely exiled.

At first, the leadership again came from England.  There, the Peacock Revolution was underway, bringing in vibrant colors beyond the standard palette of grey, navy, or grey, and playing with patterns, materials, cuts and silhouettes in surprising ways.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., the children of those who survived the Great Depression and the last World War were coming of age, and they knew nothing of the privations and seriousness their parents had faced.  They grew up in a world with every luxury where marketers for the first time aggressively targeted them, teaching them like their parents from youth on that they should have what they want.

When these Baby Boomers became college aged, many of them felt quite free to question much of what had structured the world of their parents and grandparents. The racial, sexual, and other injustices that had been accepted as self-evident by so many for so long were rejected along with many of the other ways their parents and grandparents had structured their world.  This included masculine style.

The sober dress descended from Brummell had served as the uniform of the establishment for over a century and a half.  It reached its culmination in the 1950s and early 1960s when it was in the form called the “Ivy League” style, a clear indication of its place within and continuance of the old Anglo-American power structure (click here for an excellent introduction to the history of the Ivy Look, which developed out of the imitation of English sports and country clothes at Princeton, Yale, and other schools earlier in the century).  This had been the uniform of the British Empire with its widespread and exploitative colonization.  This was the dress of the American establishment, its politicians and captains of business that had held on to slavery so long and that was still clinging to a world of inequality.  The Suit, quite simply, was the uniform of The Man.  In fact, a man perpetuating the old establishment in lifestyle and look could simply be called a “Suit.”

When the Peacock Revolution was brought to America, in large part by pop musicians, it fed into this Cultural Revolution to produce the greatest convulsion in men’s style since Brummell.  Not only did men do everything they could to not look like their fathers, growing out their hair and shunning ties, they explored many other style traditions, often of peoples oppressed by the Anglo-American establishment like those of India and of the Native Americans. 

At the same time, groups that had been marginalized for racial, sexual, or other reasons and had felt overwhelming pressure to conform to the Anglo-American look of the establishment felt freer to develop ways of dressing that reflected a powerful embrace of their own identities.  This collision of the Peacock Revolution and the Cultural Revolution produced an eclecticism in style that stayed as far away from the Ivy League suit as possible to make clear its rejection of the racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism of the establishment while exploring every possible source of inspiration to express a vision of a new world.  The number of serious youth with genuine cultural and political commitments was bolstered by many more young people simply attracted by the sex, drugs,  and rock and roll – the anarchic freedom – of the movement, spreading its aesthetics into every corner of youth culture.

X. Men's Style After the Cultural Revolution

The 1970s saw the commercialization of the style freedom of the late 60s.  All of the most excessive aspects of the 60s like the drugs and the sartorial wandering in search of boundaries continued on in a new, intense narcissism that recycled historical styles as cartoon caricatures.  Meanwhile the best of the 60s, the will for political change, lost its central position in popular culture.  This is how one ends up at a place like Studio 54.  Additionally, the veneration of the natural in the late 60s was overcome by an intense return to a space age enthusiasm that abandoned cotton, wool and cashmere for bulletproof synthetics.

By the 1980s, the eclecticism initiated in the 60s cemented into standards of dress that were as determined by which subgroup a person chose to belong to as the standards of stratified dress were by the social classes under the ancien régime.  One now dressed as a punk, a jock, a stoner, a preppy, or as one of many other identities not necessarily tied to class.

The prep look that became popular in the 1980s was very much in the tradition of the Anglo-American establishment, and it did indeed serve to reinforce the white, rich, exclusive connotation of this entire tradition in the 1980s' attempted reactionary reassertion of WASP dominance.  However, unlike during the periods before the 1960s, there was no longer one authoritative masculine look, certainly not prep, which a man knew he was destined to wear as an adult.  Many men continued to wear the uniform of the subgroup of their high school days, or a modified version of it, into adulthood.  Preppies were just one of those many sub-cultures.  Theirs was not the look aspired to by the majority as its predecessor, Ivy League Style, had been in the 1950s, and not at all the look of adult men in general.

After the late-60s revolutions, many men became adults without ever having to put on a single tie.  By the 80s many sons were no longer learning how to dress from their fathers at all, and their Baby Boomer fathers, still stylistically disoriented by the Cultural Revolution, did not know what to teach their sons about dress anyway.  A long tradition of sons learning from their fathers rituals of dress that had been passed on for generations had been severed.

"Casual Friday"
The 1990s further dislodged traditional tailored menswear as the dotcom boom brought a style determined as much by Bay Area casualness as by the young average age of its leaders.  Eager to mimic the success of these new companies, many other businesses dropped their dress standards.  Even more traditional professional spheres where the suit and tie had hung on began having “Casual Fridays.”  By the end of the 90s it was really stuffy, if not entirely superfluous, to want to wear a tie, let alone a suit, to work in all but a very few professions.  The tradition of tailored menswear since Brummell had all but disappeared by the end of a decade that counted “Grunge” as one of its major contributions to the history of style.

XI. The Style Opportunities You Now Face

The 21st century has not developed new ways for men to dress with style and authority as much as it has inherited an ambivalence and eclectic approach towards the old ones.  The long, consistent trajectory from Brummell to JFK crashed in the late 60s.  It has never fully recovered but neither has it fully disappeared.  This presents men today with a very unique situation.

Because of the late 20th century rupture in the history of tailored men's style (i.e. suits, sports coats, ties, etc.), it was preserved in the process of being rejected and has become one of many options in the new landscape of style eclecticism.  If tailored clothing would have continued as the dominant style worn by most men, it would have continued to develop as rapidly as it did from the French Revolution to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.  But since it was replaced as the dominant style by t-shirts, jeans and so many other choices, its development slowed considerably in the spheres where it continued to be worn.  Fewer men wear tailored menswear today, but those that do have a wide range of historical styles to take as inspiration because of this slowdown in the pace of its development.

Many styles and combinations in tailored menswear from the 1920s to 1960s can be worn by men today (in the right contexts) without looking at all like costume.  Though silhouettes are tinkered with, the basic ensemble of a sack coat (the cut of a suit coat) in a dark worsted wool paired with matching trousers, and a light dress shirt with a long necktie is much the same town business uniform it was throughout the 20th century.  Traditional country and sports styles also continue to offer more casual but still smart alternatives to the suit, as they have since early in the 20th century.

With very little modification, the man who wants to dress sharply today can wear a suit like Jimmy Stewart in Rope (1948) or Sean Connery in Dr. No (1962).  He can wear a sports coat and tie like Fred Astaire in Top Hat (1935) or Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967).  Additionally, he can wear all of the even more casual styles developed early in the century which became more prominent in the middle of the century like chinos, polos, and sports shirts without ties.  Of course he can also dip down into t-shirts, jeans, and everything else most men wear today as occasion requires.  This offers a man a huge range of options unlike anything men of earlier periods had available.  No man in the early 20th century could have dressed in a range of styles based on the dress of men from the 1820s through 1860s without being ridiculously out of style and in costume most of the time.

For the conscious dresser today, this state of affairs offers a wealth of options to develop his own style.  All of the old anxieties are still alive and well today and should be taken into consideration, but the man who learns how to dress well and match his formality to occasion - who learns to use his clothes to both fit in and present the most powerful version of himself - reaps far more benefits than detriments in doing so.

Publications to Read


Conservative Primers with Many Pictures:

These will help you understand the most stable conventions and traditions in menswear with plentiful pictures to help you instantly visualize what is discussed.

Dressing the Man, Alan Flusser
Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion, Bernhard Roetzel

Trendier Publications:
On newsstands twice a year (fall and spring), these will help you know what is in style for the current season, knowledge you should combine with the information from the more conservative books.

Esquire: Big Black Book

GQ Style: What to Wear Now


Conservative Books with Few or No Pictures:
Though very informative, these are best read once you are very familiar with the names of the various garments of men's style - or with the internet in front of you to search for images - as there are not enough pictures to help you visualize what is being discussed. They will help you understand further traditional guidelines, standards of taste, and origins of conventions in men's style.

Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear, G. Bruce Boyer
The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style, Nicholas Antongiavanni

Though including many helpful images, the first is very text heavy, giving a wealth of detail on historical development. The second book is mostly just images.

American Menswear: From the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century, Daniel Delis Hill
One Hundred Years of Menswear, Cally Blackman

For further suggestions, consult Gentleman's Gazette's list of 100 Books.

Comments and Questions Welcome