Three hundred years ago, the guillotine divided men from fashion. Ever since, the individuality of modern man has become an above-the-collar issue. The Great Masculine Renunciation underscored great modern ideals like equality, social mobility, and the worthiness of work. The sacrifice that the abandonment of fashion symbolizes is less often considered.
Last year, I explored the idea of whether fashion is – or could be – feminist. Reflecting on the problems of reconciling the mixed messages that result from combining gender equality rhetoric with sexually distinctive clothing, I theorized that fashion as a feminine domain might have something to do with the visual nature of male sexuality. Since then my personal point of view has changed. I’ve come to believe that gendered clothing has way more to do with class than sex.
Before the French Revolution, fashion was divided by class, not by gender. Aristocratic men, like King Gustav III of Sweden and his brothers, above, approached fashion and grooming with the same level of expression, indulgence and care that their female counterparts did. Instructions for arranging men’s hairstyles of the time seems excessive and complex even to modern women. The use of fashion highlighted the leisured lifestyle of the nobility, and lower classes had no access to the time and money style demanded.
The political revolutions of the 18th century were reflected vividly in the clothing of men. While the power rested with the nobility, the bourgeois adopted the pretentions of aristocratic fashion. As financial and political power began to shift to the new middle class, any assumptions to aristocratic style became subject to mockery, and the tide turned. Even those to the manor born began to dress in a way that emphasized equality and fraternity.
The renunciation of fashion occurred simultaneously with another renunciation – of emotional expression. As men symbolically abandoned the excesses of physical aesthetics, and their clothing became more rational, practical, and understated, so did acceptable masculine displays of feeling. Male romantic heroes became notoriously inaccessible. Modern men’s clothing is often directly derived from military uniforms – evoking regimental, rigidly ordered ideals of masculinity.
Like women, men also had a small dress reform movement moment, which was similarly mocked and diminished in its time. Men also long to escape from the gendered expectations and demands of society through aesthetic expression. In modern times, women have won the option of adopting masculine attire if they desire without fear of diminishment. Men have not yet achieved that freedom, as this photo project demonstrates.
Fashion dies hard. Even after men attempted to discard fashion, fashion still had a sneaky way of sticking around. The most cited poster boy of masculine renunciation is the prototypical modern dandy, Beau Brummel. Denied the frivolity and artifice of the Macaronis of centuries past, Brummel instead achieved sartorial one-upmanship by applying excessive restraint, thus introducing irony into the world of fashion. The limited scope of acceptable masculine expression has encouraged aesthetically-minded men to develop an unhealthy obsession with extreme minutiae most famously parodied in American Psycho.
Just as middle class men once switched the script by asserting sartorial authority of practicality over courtly indulgence, the achievement of gender equality will be underscored not by women adopting clothing considered masculine, but by men adopting styles currently considered feminine. Because the instigation of all fashion is predicated on changes to power structures, this will happen simultaneously as women achieve greater authority and financial clout. We’re seeing the beginning of this now, as men gain more expressive freedom – at the risk of being judged by the same harsh aesthetic standards as women.