History – A rejection of effeminate ostentation
The three-piece suit was ushered in by King Charles II in the 1666 in an attempt to teach the nobility the virtues of thriftiness, rather than the exuberant and expensive styles of dress common to the time. Popularised immediately after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, extravagant and luxurious dress was renounced as effeminate and decadent, suitable only for fops, and masculinity was defined by modesty, simplicity and the rejection of fashion.
The Glorious Revolution ended any prospect of Catholicism becoming a dominant force in England & Wales and marked the end of the strongly Catholic House of Stuart (despite the continued presence of pretenders to the throne across Europe and the Jacobite rebellions they encouraged). The new rule of Protestantism under William III and, later, the House of Hannover (George I) was strongly supported by the aristocratic and liberal Whig party (who reigned undefeated for the majority of the 18th century). The Whig’s political rhetoric associated luxury and extravagance with femininity, tyranny, corruption and the overconsumption of the Catholic monarchs. Modesty of dress, character and deed came to define masculinity (and, therefore, their political legitimacy – bear in mind that politics was very much the realm of men only and that the label of femininity would socially exclude one from being taken seriously in politics).
A general trend present to this very day began here, of an ever increasing simplicity of dress defining our standards for masculinity. The three-piece suit became the uniform of choice in the 18th century due to its modest, sober, unassuming and frugal nature. It was an outfit that sent a clear message: “I care not for the irrelevance and tawdry whimsy of fashion – I have a duty and a clear set of morals”.
Furthermore, there were political-economical concerns. The English economy at the time (and indeed, the economy that would instigate the Industrial Revolution and transform British society) was heavily focused on clothing and textiles, specifically wool and cotton. With the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, debate over the nature of the economy was at the forefront of politics and commonly rooted in the clothing/textiles industries.
“In their attempts to decrease the consumption of foreign luxuries, seventeenth-and eighteenth-century mercantilists often drew upon gendered definitions of manners and consumption. Imported silk and calico were superfluous, luxurious and effeminate, whilst English wool was useful, sober and manly. It was thus men’s conditions and manners that would maintain a positive balance of trade. In calling upon gentlemen to reform their luxurious ways, mercantilists merged nationalist ideology with gender ideology, creating an image of masculinity compatible with English commodities and English values.”
The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550-1850 - David Kuchta, 2002
With the conversation rooted in gender identity, the new wave of free-trade critics responded in kind – decrying the aristocratic mercantilists as “effeminate fops, living in luxury, monopolizing consumption”. For both schools of economic thought, gender roles were at the heart of their arguments, with an attempt to define masculinity in opposition to femininity and as fundamentally (even morally) right.
The 20th Century
The linking of fashion and dress to questions of masculinity and morality has had an enormous impact on male fashion. As previously discussed, the trend towards ever-simplifying modes of dress progressed onwards. Three-pieces fell out of style in favour of double-breasted suits which themselves were discarded for single-breasted suits as a result of economic hardships in London after WWII. Hats all but disappeared after the 1960s. Casual-wear increasingly became jeans and a t-shirt. The 1990s and the rejection of suits altogether
Throughout the 20th century, masculinity and menswear continue to go hand in hand. The 1920s saw the emergence of the drape cut for suits – a British take on the three-piece suit that began to emphasise the shoulders (with padding) and take in the waist defined the athletic and muscular V shape that is still the standardised ideal for most tailored menswear. In fact, the degree to which tailoring emphasises or de-emphasises masculinity can be easily traced through the century.
Consider the traditional American style of tailoring (heavily influenced by the London Drape Cut) which took off in the ’40s and ’50s, emphasising wide broad shoulders and is linked to the male role as primary breadwinner for the nuclear family.
The ’60s saw the rise of sexual liberation, feminism and rebellion against the established norm leading to more excessive, ostentatious and androgynous fashions coming to the fore. Suits during this time slimmed down – thin lapels and ties, smaller shoulders, less overt emphasis on masculinity. Mod style exploded in popularity in Britain and their excess can be seen as a subversion of authoritative masculine hegemony – sleekly cut suits (with feminine bell-bottomed trousers), shiny fabrics (silk, mohair), bright and playful colours, etc.
In the ’70s and onwards we see a sharp trend back to hyper-masculinity. Massive padded shoulders, huge ties and tie-knots, massive lapels, tight waists. Perhaps, as has been argued, a reaction to the rise of women’s rights across the west?
“The inroads of feminism in various western countries coupled with structural transformations of Western capitalism, as industry-based economies have increasingly made the transition to information and service-based economies, appear to have produced a widespread crisis of masculine identity with the onset of high unemployment in previously male-dominated industrial sectors, and the increased participation of women in the professions and information sectors. It was a sense of crisis of masculinity, which, as became clear, by no means implied the demise of masculine power, which triggered interrogation of the nature of masculine identity from the 1970s on”
Subverting Masculinity – Hegemonic and Alternative Versions of Masculinity - Russell West and Frank Lay, 2000
It is suggested that a crisis of identity triggers a return to some Ur-state. The ’70s and ’80 saw a big divide between the wealth, power and masculine excess of the corporate and political world and the rise of both the New Man (pro-feminist men encouraged to be in touch with their feelings and sensitive sides) and androgynous pop-stars/New Romantics. Two extreme responses to the question of gender identity.
The ’90s and post-millennium basically saw a return to the Protestant aesthetics of the 1700s – caring about trivial matters such as fashion was an effeminate over-indulgence and the rise of Silicon Valley dot-com anti-fashions pretty much cemented our aversion to men dressing well. Jeans and a hoody/t-shirt became as the new masculine norm.
Masculinity and fashion in contemporary discourse
These days questions of masculinity and sexuality are unavoidable for anybody interested in fashion or even dressing “well”. A common remark on Reddit’s /r/MaleFashionAdvice is to decry either specific items of dress or even the very notion of caring about dress as being “feminine” in the most pejorative sense. Additionally, fashion and homosexuality now seem irreparably fused in the minds of many – an understanding that wearing certain kinds of clothing or caring about your outfit is linked to a predilection for having sexual urges towards other men. A return indeed to “fashion as a corruptive and immoral excess”, the rhetoric excluding men who care about dress from the realm of “real men”.
How we dress, therefore, is always going to be judged according to societal notions of gender identity. But this need not be restrictive – it is yet another tool, an instrument to consider when putting together outfits. Gender-through-dress is something that can be adhered to or played with at will, and transcending the prison of “masculine=good/right/virtuous” is something that I feel strongly about. The key to it is understanding the role fashion plays in our external identity and how intertwined this is with gender. Dressing well, for me, is dressing in natural harmony with yourself and with your character – your external style should calmly and fluidly come from within. This is the key to being truly and honestly expressive in dress, rather than forcing any external personality or norms onto yourself. Masculinity as prescribed by an external society, especially when it such a tumultuous and ever-changing concept to begin with, is not something to necessarily aspire towards.
However, it is something to take into account and to understand as we exist defined by context and the world around us. Fashion that subverts or toys with our concepts of gender and masculinity are just as worthy of discussion as jeans and suits, even if it’s ultimately not for everybody. Regardless, I think it’s about time we leave behind this pathetic coupling of fashion with “not manly” or “gay”.