The Great Male Renunciation
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.
8/15/2017 11:55:16 am
However, men — and women — are sporting a LOT more body art these days, which is more customizable, personal and decorative, than clothing could ever be.
Good point, Lisa. On the other side, unless it's the kind you can wash off in the shower, body art is harder than clothes to change from day to day. And if one aspires to work in a bank, it's a good idea to place a tattoo where long sleeves or socks will cover it up. Social acceptability is increasing but far from complete.
8/15/2017 03:42:22 pm
My observation: Females are showing more skin that ever. Maybe female individuality in clothing will not matter in the future, given the baring of more and more skin. Females in high schools across the US are challenging BOE's for the right to wear shorts and short-shorts to school. Because on hot days it is just too miserable to wear blue jeans. Yet, in my years of teaching, I have never seen any male wearing short-shorts. They still wear long blue jeans. At least this has been my personal experience. Rarely a pair of Bermuda shorts to school.
Thank you, Walter! The Men's Dress Reform Party in England between the wars advocated for men to wear shorts. Even today, men and boys have much less flexibility in socially acceptable dress than women and girls. As for females showing more skin than ever - do you see this at all ages or just the under-30s? Hard to imagine it making clothing irrelevant, at least when winter rolls around.
8/16/2017 08:56:04 am
Basically under 30.
6/25/2019 05:36:07 am
I passed a female student in short-shorts and a very brief tank top. Waiting for the school bus
2/18/2021 09:34:43 pm
I’d posit that the practical dressing of men in suits is correlated with the onset of the industrial revolution. Men went to work in offices, and sometimes factories . It became silly to dress frilly!
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.