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
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.
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
|Louis XVI, Before the Guillotine|
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|
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 régime’s 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 régime’s “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.
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|
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
VIII. Men's Style Continues to Develop Under the Influence of Sports
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)|
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|
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
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
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.”
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 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.
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.