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Masculine Fashion, from the 17th to the 19th Century

By Gail Cariou, Cynthia Cooper, Eileen Stack

"Men" and "fashion" are usually considered mutually exclusive terms in Western society. Social taboos against men's interest in clothing that first appeared in the 19th century have blinded us to the enduring male enthusiasm for fashionable apparel. Despite society's intermittent unease with the notion of the "fashionable man," men have persevered in their pursuit of a stylish image.

Masculinity -- The clothes that make the Ideal Man

The concept of what constitutes a manly image has changed radically over the last three centuries, from the leisured aristocrat to the self-made captain of industry. Each generation has had its own definition of the masculine ideal, and specific notions of how this desirable man should dress.

The suit has been an essential component of menswear since its introduction in the late 1600s. With each incarnation of the masculine ideal, the suit has also been redefined to meet changing notions of the manly image.

Production -- Manufacturing the "look"

The tailor, the factory worker, the shopkeeper and devoted women at home all contributed to creating the ideal man.

Through the centuries, women at home have traditionally produced clothing for the men in their families, not only out of economic necessity, but also as a tangible demonstration of familial devotion, artistic expression and needleworking skill.

But, the tailor was the consummate fashion authority during the 19th century, interpreting the latest styles to suit his client's individuality, fitting him carefully, sewing skilfully and catering to masculine vanity.

By the 20th century, ready-made clothing dominated men's wardrobes. Sewing machines, standardized sizing and mass manufacturing techniques transformed small-scale menswear production into an industry and eroded the authority of the individual tailor. Department stores, specialty shops and mail-order catalogues meant that fashionable and affordable ready-made clothing was available to men everywhere.

Vanity, thy name is... man?

Men have always used fashion to attract attention and satisfy a desire for personal display. Women are not the only ones to turn to clothing to enhance, adorn and modify their bodies. Although 19th-century social dictates relegated interest in clothing to the realm of women, men were still active players in the fashion game.

Nevertheless, social norms have long required that men's interest in fashion be carefully balanced. Too great a concern with fashion and personal appearance may be interpreted as not only vain, but also unmanly, while too little interest is considered equally questionable.

Exposure -- Not in public, please!

The course of fashion does not always run smoothly. While vanity may inspire men to display their bodies, changing notions of modesty, vulgarity and sexuality have long given rise to debate over which parts and how much of the body may be acceptably revealed in public. For example, over the past two centuries, the trouser fly and the bathing suit both elicited their share of debate.

New styles that drew attention to previously concealed parts of the body were frequently condemned on moral grounds. Conversely, inventive arguments for the practical or healthful benefits of new clothing styles were frequently offered to defend controversial fashion innovations. New fabrics and technologies sometimes accelerated the acceptance of the latest styles.

Propriety -- Jacket and tie required

Conventions of social behaviour determine rules of dress -- rules that in turn govern what is appropriate attire, when and for whom. Some of the most persistent rules are those that reinforce social status, and these rules evolve as a way of maintaining membership in a social "club."

As men's clothing styles gradually became less reliable as an indicator of social status over the course of the 19th century, complex rules of "what to wear and when to wear it" became increasingly important to maintaining social exclusivity. These rules also regulated what was suitable attire in public or private. Some rules, like the wearing of hats in all circumstances in the 19th century, encouraged social conformity and transcended age, wealth and social class.

Sportswear -- From field to boardroom

Sportswear has played an important role in the development of men's fashion, borrowing from and contributing to mainstream clothing styles. Aesthetic and practical innovations in sportswear design have frequently been adopted into men's regular dress, and the relaxed comfort of athletic wear has repeatedly rendered more formal fashions obsolete. The tailcoat, frockcoat and top hat, for example, were initially developed in the 18th century for horseracing and foxhunting, but eventually became the foundation of 19th-century fashionable dress for men.

Historically, the appeal of sportswear lay largely in its connection to elite leisure activities. Today it continues to suggest that the wearer possesses enviable amounts of time, money, and talent -- attributes personified by the celebrity athlete. With colour-coded stripes and badges, sportswear also announces membership, status and identity.

Fraternity -- One of the boys

Uniforms and ceremonial dress play a dual role. Not only are they the most obvious of dress codes, preserving social distinctions and reinforcing hierarchy and group membership, but some uniforms also provide men with socially acceptable opportunities for overt fashionable display.

Some very elaborate uniforms have persisted in much the same form for hundreds of years, with only minor concessions to contemporary circumstances. In contrast, some regular clothing styles never intended as "uniforms" have become so common that they serve the same function, signalling affiliation and status.

Gender -- Who wears the pants?

In Western culture, trousers are the item of clothing that defines "maleness." Although trousers have become acceptable for women over the last 50 years, strong social taboos in our culture discourage men from wearing skirts or other clothing that might call their masculinity into doubt.

But is there anything intrinsically "male" about trousers or other items that we associate with men? The history of children's clothing, the regularity with which men and women have consciously borrowed from each other's styles and men's enthusiasm for socially acceptable opportunities to subvert clothing conventions all demonstrate that our ideas about appropriate dress for men and women are mere social constructs. Although clothing still functions to distinguish the sexes, its power has been repeatedly challenged.

Men's clothing, no less than women's, is subject to cycles of fashion that reflect changing cultural, economic and political environments, as well as evolving perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Like women, men use clothing for personal display or to identify with their peers. And like women, men follow the unwritten rules of the fashion game.

Source: "Clothes Make the Man" Exhibition Texts, 2002-2003

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