Sempre Armani

John Harvey

  • The Man of Fashion: Male Peacocks and Perfect Gentlemen by Colin McDowell
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £29.95, October 1997, ISBN 0 500 01797 2

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.

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