Daring to Challenge Conventional Men's Style

rudolphval
Rudolf Valentino early 1920's

Until recently, women were considered more fascinating for the personalities they could assume through dress. Nancy Lyons discovered that men, too, have not always suppressed their other - more charismatic - personalities.

Even in ancient cultures men of importance - rulers, courtiers, priests, etc - wore elaborate and colourful clothing. In those periods where European men's fashion was dark, usually embroidery and lace made up for lack of colour. During the days of the Tudors and the Stuarts of England, the royalty and nobility dressed amazingly opulent, proclaiming the wearer as a member of the ruling class. However, in times of religious conflict, it was dress distinctions, which made it clear who was on which side - the Cavaliers were the men of fashion, and the Roundheads were Puritans, dressing in drab clothes.

During the Restoration of Charles II (1660 to 1688), the nobility and their imitators followed the lead he offered by wearing Parisian fashion. Men's fashion rivaled women's with elegant laces and elaborate broad-brimmed hats with Ostrich feathers. "Men of fashion" punctuated their flamboyant outfits, with an entertaining personality - sharp wit and "feminine" chatter. Men and women's fashions everywhere reflected class distinctions and were extremely formal, cumbersome and elaborate for the upper classes. Even men wore clothes, which were padded, boned, and laced. Their feet were squeezed into pointed, high-heeled shoes or boots, while their heads were adorned with long, powdered and curled wigs. Around 1770 some young English men "rebelled" with their invention of the "macoroni" style, which included an exaggerated pompadour with curious headgear. In America, Yankee Doodle Dandy was making a statement by sticking a feather in his hat and calling it "Macoroni".

Nonetheless, it wasn't until after the French Revolution that fashions changed. Aristocrats were terrified of showing class distinctions, so extravagance and over-decoration became unfashionable and even dangerous. Highly decorated costumes for men no longer symbolized the power of the governing classes. After the divine right of the people became doctrine, the men of the middle classes gradually took over the authority of the aristocracy and drab Puritan clothes became the badge of male superiority. The Puritan influence also took hold in the American colonies.

Other than Napoleon's brief attempt in France to make colourful clothing fashionable for men, as the common male rose to positions of authority, he continued to wear drab clothes, in a fierce determination to be loyal to his own class. There was an aversion to ornamental attire as worn by previous nobility. The businessmen and "landed gentry" in England, and those with money in America, stopped wearing embroidery (except on waistcoats) around 1800.

The clothing of the late 18th to early 19th century went unchallenged except by dandy Beau Brummel and Lord Byron, with his exotic appearance. The dandyism of this period represented social superiority as a backlash to the new aristocracy. Lord Byron led the men of fashion for a short time during the Romantic Period, by wearing a loose cravat, tight-fitting tail coat and breeches. Brummel believed in the elegance of cut, rather than colour, to enhance one's appearance. (He is said to have even told the Prince Regent himself that his breeches did not fit.) Baudelaire was an admirer of the English dandies. He defended it as the best means of achieving distinction, not just an obsession with personal appearance and material elegance. However, this was no match for the sobering influence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

In the 1840's skillful men's tailors padded the coat, vest and trousers to create the fashionable hourglass shape. The ideal look was for a full, broad chest thrown forward, shoulders back and small waist. The small waist was achieved by wearing a corset. constructed of metal springs (see Corsets article in Issue 2).Some, like American John F. Watson, criticised the "unnatural-looking waists" and deformed appearance of both women and men of the period. Conformity to the exact standards of the perfect fit was even more important for men than women. Perhaps the rounded appearance in men's fashion was an attempt for men to conform to point of appearing more like their feminine counterparts.

menssuits1907
Men's Suits 1907 have not changed much

The middle-class ideal of sobriety and conformity became reflected in their dark clothes, and ambitious office-workers imitated this inconspicuous, drab attire. Clothes changed from colourful to dark and plain around 1850. As somber clothing gave the impression of security, consistency and conformity within the business community, cartoonists soon used this conservative dress to symbolize the entire capitalist industry.

Throughout history and into today, creatives - painters, writers, composers, musicians, designers and actors - showed superiority over their bourgeois contemporaries, through dress. This became particularly evident during periods when aesthetics and design were high in the public's consciousness.

In his book Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde voices his opinion through Lord Henry Wotton who says "The costume of the nineteenth century is detestable. It is so sombre, so depressing." When on his lecture tours, Wilde often dressed ostentatiously to win his audience's attention, although his talk held philosophical gravity. His signature costume was knee breeches, velvet jacket, vest, and silk stockings, while carrying a sunflower - a symbol of the English aesthetic movement. When lecturing in America, he adopted some of the local look, but by the early 1880's Wilde's attire adopted a French influence and was only subtly unconventional. The fact that he kept changing his appearance - even his hairstyle from long to short - annoyed the press and other bearers of convention.

Designers Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gustav Klimpt and William Morris similarly asserted their artistic influence on styles, usually in defense of comfortable, aesthetically pleasing clothing. The flamboyant 5th Marquis from Plas Newydd, who enjoyed theatrical costumes laced with real precious stones, shopped at Liberty's in London, known for its sympathies to comfortable clothing with a distinctive style.

In the early 1920's, English fashion was influenced by American style, such as the "rather effeminate", jazzy novelty jacket. The threat to convention was not only from another culture, but one comprised of many others. In England, it was considered more acceptable to purchase suits "as worn by the prince" who was "admired for his way of dressing with "that little bit of individuality which pleased but which was not at all outrageous." (A Man's Book Fashion in the Man's World in the 20's & 30's, ed by J. Waller, Duckworth & Co, London, 1977, p33) It was just at this time that the conservatives were complaining that "so fitted and curved had the male silhouette become in comparison with the female one, which was flattened, straight and masculine-looking, that they seem to have changed places." (Waller, p.34)

In 1929 "The Men's Dress Reform Party" was formed in London with consideration to improving men's health and appearance. The dark business suit was seen as boring, uncomfortable, and tedious. It was suggested that warm, ugly and unhygienic trousers be replaced with breeches or shorts. They were also concerned with decorative clothing, as being designed to attract the opposite sex. They contemplated the idea that women were adopting male attire in order to attract a man, because men were now enjoying decorative clothes. However, this club of middle-aged and elderly men included no young dandies. Dandies of the period liked dressing up; so the "men of fashion" had indeed become dandies.

More recently, gay entertainers Liberace in the 1950's and 1960's and Elton John in the 1970's, dandies of their day, dressed excessively opulent on and off the stage. With new found Scottish pride perhaps brought on by political changes, kilt wearing has become fashionable since the late 1990's, and publicised by such film personalities as Mel Gibson (in the film Braveheart), Sean Connery and Guy Ritchie. This phenomenon has inspired designers to pursue challenging convention by promoting the male skirt (see the current exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum). Sports figures like former American basketball star Michael Jordan and English footballer David Beckham also attempt to reassert men's right to creative and comfortable fashion today.

If you have an opinion or comment about this or a related topic, send an email to editor@aboutdecorativestyle.com to have it posted on the website.