No Fol-de-Rols

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England 1550-1850 by David Kuchta
    California, 299 pp, £29.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 520 21493 5

What is it our mammas bewitches
To plague us little boys with breeches?
To tyrant Custom we must yield
Whilst vanquished Reason flies the field.
Our legs must suffer by ligation
To keep the blood from circulation.

Our wiser ancestors wore brogues
Before the surgeons bribed these rogues
With narrow toes and heels like pegs
To help to make us break our legs.

And to increase our other pains
The hat band helps to cramp our brains.
The cravat finishes the work,
Like bowstring sent from the Grand Turk.

‘Written for My Son, and Spoken by Him at His First Putting on Breeches’ (1731)

As Mary Barber knew, male clothing is as irrational a cultural imposition as women’s. Yet, while the absurd, even unhealthy frivolity of female clothing has been attacked for centuries by Philosophes, physicians and divines, male dress, equally artificial, has passed largely unregarded and unrebuked, treated instead as normal, natural and reasonable. David Kuchta’s revisionist history makes male clothing the centre of attention.

Despite the dates of his study, Kuchta concentrates on the rise of Whig philosophy in England from the late 17th century onwards, and the development of a new, steady, English civic apparel to reflect and represent the new enlightened and mercantile man. The wearing of colourful and exuberant clothing as part of aristocratic display had often been problematic in the light of doctrines regarding the desirability of the plain and unostentatious, but in a new economy, one in which goods could be purchased more and more readily by more and more persons possessing money rather than class, the nobility could not uphold their image. Ceremonial and hierarchical display of gold brocade and velvet came to be seen as meretricious: the clothing of upstarts. ‘Luxury’ has always been a hot political issue; for Kuchta, the language of clothes is everywhere a political language. Away went the trunk-hose and the velvet capes, the too suggestive codpieces and the too feminine lace collars. In came the long vest or waistcoat, and then the coat or jacket and pantaloons. Kuchta sees this development as historically inevitable, and in this way undercuts the importance of figures such as Beau Brummel and the differences between decades.

The style that slowly but steadily began to gain mastery at the end of the 17th century was, Kuchta contends, a reflection of a new political persuasion. To follow French fashion signified being governed by the French. Males fit to govern England and form its commercial backbone could not caper about in imported fol-de-rols. They sought a ‘republican’ style. (Oddly, Kuchta says nothing about the republican Venetians, whose governing classes had long sought sobriety of dress; nor does he refer to the egalitarian Quakers.) The good cloth coat of the ineluctably evolving ‘three-piece suit’ was an advertisement for virtue carried on thousands of backs, proclaiming disdain of Toryism and ‘Jacobitism, Popery, French fashions and French absolutism’. The new style was also proudly English; the garments were to be made of English cloth, not from imports: ‘English wool was useful, sober and manly – England’s moral fibre,’ the sartorial equivalent of roast beef.

It was the women of the ruling and mercantile classes who wore the silks and velvets and laces – and were ritually ridiculed for doing so. Ladies bore the burden of conspicuous consumption, of the excess and display from which men had to be seen to be abstaining. Women who attempted to take on rational dress as their own cause were sneered at. The new ideology, Kuchta argues, demanded as a complement the frailty and error of the female: ‘the male sartorial revolution of 1688 was impossible without this companion feminisation of fashion.’ Men’s power was now proclaimed in ‘sumptuary renunciation rather than sumptuary law’, and ‘the new regime’s elites claimed modesty as their own.’

In the 19th century, the old aristocracy of gentry and commercial elite had to give way to the advances of a lower rank, the middle middle class, but the males of that class firmly advanced themselves by adopting or adapting the dress of aristocratic or genteel moneyed men, and used the same political-sartorial language in attacking corruption, luxury and ostentation. ‘Well before the Great Reform Act, the self-made man had already donned a new image,’ Kuchta asserts. Men became even more serious and their clothing even simpler, winning admiration from such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who admired this English ‘studied plainness’ as a manifestation of innate republican leanings, the abjuration of ‘pretentiousness and vapouring’.

In short, men took to the three-piece suit as the price of power in the capitalist age. Kuchta’s story is simple: power is achieved through forsaking the feminine and postponing pleasure, in constant suppression of an Oedipal desire for fancier dress. Kuchta is a good, sober historian, and has read a quantity of primary material, not only major authors such as Burke, but an impressive number of contemporary tracts and pamphlets. His study is not enlivened so much as en-sobered by portraits reproduced in black and white – which favours his argument, as any hint of rebellious colour or soft texture is withheld. But these paintings were themselves very largely the result of fashionable demand. Kuchta does not wish quite to admit that the capitalist age itself demanded fashion, but the evidence is there. The fashion of gentlemen’s chariots, furniture and dinner services was quite as important as the fashion of their clothing. Even the very masculine but humble razor strop was the subject of an aggressive 18th-century advertising campaign.

The Three-Piece Suit is well-written, serious, and perhaps (broadly speaking) even true. Yet it has marked deficiencies. It is not correct that aside from Mandeville there was no analytic criticism of the new masculine dress style. The verses by Swift’s friend Barber, written in her son’s voice, show that she is willing to carry the fashion war into the enemy camp. Women’s clothes may be criticised as irrational and unhealthy, she seems to be saying, but male dress, too, can be seen in terms of the tormenting experience of a naive boy who is forced into it. Barber knows as well as Kuchta that masculine dress is a construction of power, and she also represents the cause of male fashion victims. But Kuchta could not have come across this little poem, since he abjures literary sources and almost all literary reflections of the trends he describes. His index has no entries for Austen, Dickens, Fielding, Pope, Richardson, Rousseau, Scott, Swift or Trollope. Relying entirely on historians and polemicists, Kuchta not only eschews literature as a source but also disdains to consult modern art historians or historians of costume.

The result is that we get an idealised ‘plain’ view of what Kuchta regards as a simple matter. If we were to admit complexity, however, we would find that men did wear fine fabrics and bright colours in the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries. Men did use clothing to show off. The richly embroidered waistcoat of the mid 18th century is an example of the way in which a certain flamboyance and entertainment value could be worked into the ‘graver’ style. Throughout the period, men took on new styles – large or small buttons, vents, narrower waists or boxier jackets – as fashion dictated. David Copperfield, courting Dora, becomes a dedicated follower of fashion: ‘Within the first week of my passion, I bought four sumptuous waistcoats . . . and took to wearing straw-coloured kid gloves in the street, and laid the foundations of all the corns I have ever had.’ Even in middle age, Dickens himself was not drab, arraying himself in brightly coloured waistcoats.

Kuchta eliminates sex from his sober account – save for the gendered alignment of fashion and the assertion of male authority. Yet in all human costume, sex as well as status is incessantly at stake. It wasn’t just the military officer with his red coat and sword who allured with dangerous attractions. Anne Hollander has pointed out in Seeing through Clothes that the male body, as presented in the fashions of the 18th century and the Regency, is crotch-centred. Breeches – in their beautiful unpractical light colours of fawn or yellow or grey or white – were designed to be noticed, and forced the eye towards the genitals. When we look at Joseph Wright’s portrait of Brooke Boothby, we don’t say to ourselves: ‘in this era men are all grave and plain, and any hint of the homosexual, or of the sexually alluring, is suppressed.’ Kuchta appears to have forgotten the crotch. He ignores much else, including the modes of cutting and dressing hair (and wigs), and gravely averts his eyes from such improprieties as male accessories: snuff boxes, jewellery (including the important gold watches), canes, wigs, scents and cravats – not to mention the boots. Kuchta is forever gazing after an idealised figure of aggressively genteel modesty, a figure to whom fashion and sexuality never truly ceded their ground.