The Man of Fashion: Male Peacocks and Perfect Gentlemen 
by Colin McDowell.
Thames and Hudson, 208 pp., £29.95, October 1997, 0 500 01797 2
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Fashion pages in papers – like fashion sections in bookshops – give more space to dresses than to suits. With the assumption that fashion is a female domain goes the popular male assumption that it is frivolous – dazzling perhaps, but ephemeral and lightweight. The accusation most commonly made against male dandies is that they are effeminate. The usual assumption would seem to be that women wear fashions, while men wear uniforms – military, civilian, athletic or ‘leisure’.

Yet we have all seen pictures, like those Colin McDowell reproduces in The Man of Fashion, of medieval and Renaissance men wearing (not all at the same time) slippers with long rising toes, peascod doublets with a kind of hooked belly curling out and round the genitals, sleeves that puff out in fat waves of slashed cloth, cartwheel ruffs that make their heads look like puddings on plates, and tall hats adorned with ostrich feathers. Of course these fashions were often led by young men, who had the limbs and torso for them, and were eyed askance, or rancorously excoriated, by older, stouter men, and by priests who went around in voluminous ‘robes’. But over-weight middle-aged monarchs, too, displayed their stout calves in tight hose, and wore elaborately begemmed, slashed and gold-embroidered doublets. The Duke of Buckingham, in one of McDowell’s illustrations, is garlanded with pearl necklaces like a Twenties hostess.

Even in the late 19th century, when men’s dress had become plain, dark-toned and uniform, quality and stylishness were immensely important to them. McDowell’s account is misleading in its concentration on the obvious peacocks, on the Count D’Orsay, Liberace and Gaultier-man – such iridescent figures were always the exception – while at the same time playing down the importance of the innumerable ‘perfect gentlemen’ for whom it was essential both to be in fashion and not to be a multicoloured peacock. In the late 19th century, men’s fashions were substantial and dignified, in accordance with the confidence and satisfaction with the self that marked the culture of the prosperous male animal at that time. The hero of a Tolstoy novel will enjoy his ‘fine, clean, well-ironed linen nightshirt’, his fine silk dressing-gown, and even his toilette. ‘Having refreshed his plump, white, muscular body and dried it with a rough bath-sheet, he put on his fine under-garments ... and sat down before the glass to brush his black beard and curly hair ... Everything belonging to his toilet – his linen, his clothes, boots, necktie, pin, studs – was of the best quality, very quiet, simple, durable and costly.’ To Tolstoy’s men, their own clothes, like their own bodies, seem to be a source of pleasure.

The Man of Fashion is an oddly pop production, printed on lilac paper, devoid of references, its text constantly interrupted by picture-sections where such topics as Codpieces, Underwear, Lounge Lizards, The Art of Cutting are ticked off with two photos and a chatty paragraph. McDowall is steadily more informative as he approaches the present day, and encyclopedic on the late 20th century. I cannot rival his knowledge of the New York, Milan and Tokyo houses, but there remain some broader questions about men’s fashions which, in his close concentration on Masculine Curves, Tweed, Ties and Teddy Boys, and on Klein, Bikkembergs, Boss and Issey Miyake, he hardly has time to address.

For the fashionable, fashion lessens the anxiety of life; those who are à la mode know they are not alone and directionless. Fashion shows that one is alert, swerving as the herd swerves, but swerving with the front of the herd. Yet the fashion world is not free from tension: witness, on the one hand, the aggressive tone of the fashionable towards those who are not, and, on the other, the grudge against fashion-victims.

If we follow the recent fashion for thinking of masculinity as being precarious, constantly put to the test (we must prove our manhood), burdened by obligation (we must live up to great expectations), attended by fear (fear of emotion, fear of women, fear of sexual failure) and also by the fear of fear (men do not get frightened), then the man who succeeds in being ‘in fashion’ clearly has, in the course of his anxious, lonely, predatory career-making, a most potent support system.

Fashion has always been important to men: the question is why both men and women should conspire in the claim that it is a feminine matter. We may feel that a particular garment is in its nature masculine or feminine, despite knowing that at another period it had the opposite connotation. Think of the associations trousers and skirts have, though trousers are now unisex and skirts originally represented an economy in the men’s department at a time when women wore gowns that brushed the ground. Blue (for boys) is a masculine colour, and pink (for girls) is seen as delicate and feminine, but a hundred years ago little boys were dressed in the lusty flush of pink, and little girls in the pale azure of purity. Two hundred years ago, both sexes wore white frilly dresses – like the infant Beau Brummell in the portrait at Kenwood – till the growing boy was ‘breeched’: a small domestic ritual that helped ‘construct’ his masculinity, and an instance of the advance which rituals of dress represented on older rites of passage.

Dress and fashion help build men and women into the men and women we take them to be. We could then ask what it is that men’s dress wants to tell us about men, and also about fashion. Men and women have worn both the trousers and the skirt, but one could still say, at least of the European West, that men’s fashions have made more use of straight lines and less of full curves than women’s fashions; that men’s clothes have tended to be more close-fitting and less voluminous; that they have tended to delineate the limbs and their movements more clearly. They have a starker geometry and a more patent functionalism. They have tended away from what women’s dress has in several periods tended towards: obscure, ample volumes of space, concealed and concealing.

It is no surprise that men’s dress has tended to the more taut assertion of superiority, with the chest puffed and padded until it looks ready to explode (the tight-squeezed cupping upwards of women’s breasts has a different effect), the erect or stiffened ramrod back, and the high-raised head, kept rigid by such inflexible tubes as the Spanish collar (16th century) or the starched collar (1890s on). Perhaps a more subtle characteristic of men’s fashions is the tendency to leave garments open, and to show their insides. Since the 17th century, a constant feature of menswear has been what we now call the jacket, which has always had fastenings attached to its front, but has very often been left open. The cloak was replaced by an overcoat worn on top of the jacket, which again could be worn open, and is often shown this way in fashion pictures. Both jackets and coats have frequently had quite large lapels, where the inside of the garment is worn on the outside. The lapel may seem a trivial thing, but it has proved remarkably tenacious, springing back quickly after each brief attempt at a futuristic lapel-less jacket. Sleeves were for many years turned over to make big cuffs, and when breeches stretched to trousers, lapels turned up in turn-ups. These features date from the 17th century or later, but in earlier centuries, it was men who slashed their clothes, so that their undershirts showed through, just as it was the cassocks of male priests which were slit down the middle to make gowns.

There are fewer examples of this in women’s dress (tippets, women’s jackets and bodices have normally been fastened). This tendency to open dress hardly correlates with the secretive, anxious, guardedly aggressive and militant side of masculinity (innumerable puritans, Victorians and soldiers kept themselves very tight-buttoned). And there is a curious paradox, since men are more shy of showing bare skin than women are, and what they normally reveal, within their open coats and jackets, are buttoned up waistcoats over buttoned up shirts.

A further purpose of unbuttoned jackets and coats is to display the figure within the clothes, the goodly stomach of a man of substance, the mobile leanness of a young man. Which brings us to the main subject of McDowell’s book: sexual display. For much of history the leg was flaunted – but then for much of history men were so much on horseback they might have been centaurs. Now that legs are used chiefly to press pedals in cars, they, like trousers, have contracted to thin pipes, while arms and shoulders – strong for pumping iron – have been enhanced.

McDowell’s peacocks are frequently dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, from Don John of Austria to the ‘tartan cowboy’, and he understates the sexual electricity of the uncoloured Victorian period – of the black and grey peacocks of the high 19th century. He prefers to think about cavalry officers and suggests that their bright colours represented ‘all the longings’ of ‘the colourless civilian man of power’. And it is true that the older style of masculinity seems to have been delegated to soldiers: they still killed, and still paraded, in colours. Yet it is powerful men, not dashing officers, that fictitious heroines find most sexually devastating, especially when they are young members of the patrician classes marked by serene confidence and dressed with a plain elegance that would make brave colours seem a gaudy vulgarity. ‘There was not the faintest smile on his face ... nor a trace of self-consciousness or anxiety in his bearing,’ says George Eliot of Henleigh Grandcourt, and her heroine Gwendolen is transfixed by his colourless, perfect perpendicularity. It is not a question of what fashion he adopts for the purpose of display: as a wholly confident aristocrat, he is fashion itself, all would imitate him.

He is also cold and cruel and dull; Gwendolen sees this and still is excited. What he illustrates is the way the aristocracy of a society that had come to rule the world could exert its influence on the terms of sexual attraction. This may make us examine McDowell’s peacocks more closely for tell-tale signs of pride, coldness and conceit. And some of them look extremely supercilious and dislikeable. But peacockery has many aspects. Even the face of Liberace, looking up into the camera from his piano, seems to be saying, with a certain melancholy apprehensiveness: ‘Like me, love me, I am doing all this – wearing this diamanté pink suit with double-diamanté lapels and rose lace cravat – for you.’ A working-class Mexican, in pin-striped denim dungarees, with a dark sombrero tilted at an extreme angle, frowns at the camera. There is self-respect and wit in his display of a kind of dress version of workwear (which, McDowell notes, ‘possesses true integrity and power’). Bertolt Brecht sits forward at a piano, close-cropped, young, in a close-fitting lapel-less leather jacket, and, with a fat capitalist’s cigar between his teeth, seems to be enjoying the slightly preposterous pantomime of his own fashion statement. Not surprisingly, artists come out well in McDowell’s photographs: Picasso, in tartan trousers and a colossally checked shirt, also seems playful and ironic, while still showing (along with his cigarette) the appropriate smoulder of masculinity.

On the catwalk itself – and even more in menswear than in women’s – there seems to be an element of aesthetic clowning. One men’s jacket by Vivienne Westwood is an exaggerated male torso made of tinted pearls, while another is made of coloured ostrich feathers. There is a man in a plastic blue and yellow space jacket, with fins instead of cuffs and epaulettes. This is fashion display in its pure form and is not intended for the street, but it does suggest both the aesthetic pleasure and the sexual charge involved in being able to caricature yourself with style, and look extraordinary without looking foolish.

We don’t know whether there is deliberate sexual comedy in the earlier fashion excesses of men and we can’t tell quite how seriously dandies took themselves. The macaronis in the 18th century who wore, atop an immensely elongated wig, a minute cocked hat too small to fit on any head seem to be making fun of men’s fashion, even as they cut a figure. There may have been an element of joke-fashion in elongated toes, hugely slashed sleeves, and prodigious codpieces, as there seems to have been in Oxford bags. Male sexual display is a precarious kind of theatre that tips easily into farce.

McDowell’s choice of illustrations supports Anne Hollander’s argument in Sex and Suits that there was something classic and appropriate in the invention of the men’s outfit consisting of jacket, shirt and trousers. Certainly the outfit has changed remarkably little since its discovery – perhaps the major change has been the adoption of it by women as well. Quite minor adjustments cater to the needs of most general activities, and of most forms of display which men find tempting. McDowell calls Giorgio Armani the undisputed genius of male fashion in the second half of the 20th century: ‘Gentle as a whisper, his clothes have shown us what male dressing should be. Body-aware but not constraining, body-enhancing but never brash, his way of thinking is now seen as the norm in male dress.’ McDowell’s comments are confirmed by the photos of Armani’s clothes, in which the jackets and trousers seem very like the jackets and suits already worn through much of the century, and yet to express the perfect form these garments have been waiting for.

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