Brocade, taffeta, ruffles, and jewelry used to be common on wealthy men. Rather suddenly about 1800, men gave up their claim to beauty in favor of looking sober and useful. Beau Brummell (1778-1840), English arbiter of taste and fashion, favored suits in dark, somber colors with full-length trousers, plain linen shirts, broad-shouldered coats, and knotted neckties. Suits remained standard menswear for two hundred years.
Why did Brummell’s taste take such enduring hold? Opinions differ. Gentility and respectability displaced aristocracy under the democratizing influence of the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. According to The London Tailor in 1899, “There never was a time in history when everybody was dressed so alike.” Homogeneity loosened a bit since the 1950s, but men in most settings still don’t dress to stand out from the crowd. It’s unclear who benefits.
While “the Great Male Renunciation” blurred class distinctions, it heightened gender stereotypes. Men are rational and practical, clothing patterns suggest, while women—and only women—are decorative. I bought my first adult boots in the men’s department because they were more comfortable than women’s.
Norms for masculinity are transient. Some in the early 1900s proposed dressing boys in pink. Upper-class men wore high heels, practical for riding, before the fashion spread to women. Maybe someday we’ll cycle back to the days when men could flaunt their beauty with no one raising an eyebrow.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.