Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Deadly Dress

The social stakes in making a sartorial statement

There are certain items of clothing within the male wardrobe that are widely considered taboo; they are worn, but rarely, by the bold or the sartorially uneducated. The walking cane is possibly the most dangerous of these risqué items, but there is an array of objects that pique the curiosity, and perhaps provoke the derision, of passers-by, as Figure 1 shows.

Fig. 1. Dandy to Dangerous Scale[ii]

In the nineteenth century, a well-dressed man would have worn or carried most of the items listed above, but not any more. Dress accessories that were once considered staples of the male wardrobe have now become mere curios.

From Mainstream to Marginal

There is a popular notion that male dress was at its most significant and resplendent during the first half of the nineteenth century, when cravats, breeches, waistcoats and furs, not to mention bows and an abundance lace, were worn with alacrity. George ‘Beau’ Brummell, plays an important part in this history. His incredible social following, which included the Prince Regent (later George IV), placed new emphasis on gentleman’s social conduct and dress. But Beau’s formidable prowess as a raconteur and his singular importance in determing what, and who, was ‘in’, made him a unique and inimitable phenomenon. Lacking so great a champion after his fall from grace in 1816 (due to unpaid debts, of course), the cause of men’s fashion stagnated. It stuttered through the early 1900s, but succumbed to the frugalities that followed the world wars and to the practical considerations of mass production. The result is apparent along alleys, boulevards and sidestreets the world over: certain men who are blissfully unaware of the importance of good dress; many men that are, but who know nothing about how to achieve it.

Practical Priorities

In a bid to demonstrate that the evolution of male dress has been more complex, and to provide a social and intellectual frame for the resurgence that men’s clothing is currently enjoying, an increasing number of fashion scholars argue against this view, which they deem simplistic.[iii] They point out that men’s dress has always carried significance and highlight the fact that restraint and pragmatism were not new concepts borne of industrialisation and war. According to the sociologist Norbert Elias, the concern to moderate behaviour and dress in public, particularly in environments like the princely court where minor faux pas were seized upon by rivals, has been a dominant theme in human interactions since the Middle Ages.[iv] Recent studies of male clothing, which consider themes such as masculinity and self-fashioning, sexuality and the influence of music, have done much to demonstrate, and to educate us about, the diversity of men’s style. Yet even these studies tend to show (if inadvertently) that attitudes to men’s dress changed irrevocably during the nineteenth century, not necessarily because of Beau Brummell, but because of industrialisation.

The impact of the industrial revolution on men’s dress was profound. It not only demanded a new type of practical costume that could be worn in the factories, but created new markets for sport and leisure garments, as men took advantage of the travel opportunities afforded by the harnessing of steam and pursued new sports, made possible through novel manufacturing processes. As ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ became increasingly distinct spheres within men’s lives, the task for which clothes were to be used, rather than the personal preferences and tastes of the wearer, become a major determinant in their manufacture. For men who were unaccustomed to wear specific forms of clothing for their occupation and who had no connection to the military, this would have been a very new experience. Prioritising practicalities over personal preferences probably helps to explain why, over time, many of the dress accessories included in Figure 1 have become less common. The desire to make a sartorial statement and demonstrate one’s wealth has not gone away, but I do not think it coincidental that some of the most expensive accessories that men buy today – chiefly watches and technology cases – are rooted in practicality. Technology cases frequently retail at many times the price of the electronic device they protect: an Hermés iPad case can be purchased for £1,430 ($1,425), a similar product by Burberry costs £1,295 ($2,195).[v] Prices for the iPad II start at £329 ($399).

Dandyism is Dead, Long Live Dandyism

But dandyism is not dead. In fact, there is reason to think that it is making a come back. Pocket squares are now not so uncommon, nor (unfortunately) are tie bars. Pocket watches are a little more daring, although prestigious horology marques, including Bell & Ross, are selling them.[vi] The smoking pipe, which does not make it onto the Dandy to Dangerous Scale because it is not in strictu sensu a dress accessory, is also in vogue. It has been brought bang up to date by Stiff, who have created a Dieter Rams-esque beauty entirely from plastic.[vii] I suspect it will be a while before men are ready for the walking cane, but the ground is being prepared. Umbrellas by Burberry and Archer Adams, which feature Gothic and ornithologically inspired handles, certainly seem to have been fashioned in homage to 1930s canes.[viii]  Whilst it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of this dandy revival, television dramas and movies are surely a major contributor. Downton Abbey has charmed the Brits and is now taking the US by storm. Many fashion houses have taken inspiration for their Fall catalogues from Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and Baz Luhrmann’s yet-to-be-released Gatsby. And yet for all the progress that is being made to advance the cause of dandyism, one piece of male dress remains beyond the pale: the bow tie.

The question to ask is not whether an activity is riskfree, but whether the risk incurred is acceptable when weighted against the benefits. As with beauty, the acceptability is in the eyes of the beholder.

Larry O’Connor[ix]

The Bow Tie

The bow tie is a part of a man’s dress that people feel compelled to ‘read’ and ‘interpret’. Wearing a bow tie for formal evening occasions is de rigueur, but sporting one during daylight hours suggests the wearer wishes to make a statement about his [>masculinity<, >sexuality<, >social standing< take your pick], or so it is often assumed. In a fascinating article, Rob Shields has explored why an object as small and delicate as the bow tie has come to carry such heavy social baggage.[x] In part, the bow tie’s troubles stem from where it is worn. In a previous post I discussed the cultural significance of the waist.[xi] Well, the neck is just as significant a part of the body. Without any sense of hyperbole Shields observes, ‘In some ways, the history of clothing is marked out by the treatment of the neck.’[xii] The bow tie is also ambiguous in that it is worn by ‘servants and masters’ alike, from waiters and butlers, to bouncers and presidents. It is thus a ‘Janus-faced signifier’ that makes people, who love to pigeonhole, uneasy.[xiii] But, even here there is hope. American actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his partner Justin Mikita have recently launched Tie the Knot, a neckwear line sold through e-tailer Tie Bar.[xiv] Their aim is to raise awareness and money for groups working to promote the cause of same-sex marriages.[xv] This campaign, which combines principles with personal flair, truly shows that men’s dress can be interesting and individual. Beau Brummell would be proud.

I have wanted to incorporate a bow tie into my daily itineration of neckwear for some time, but have never progressed beyond the contemplative stage, chiefly because of concerns about the bow tie’s social baggage. Ferguson and Mikita’s endeavour, which promotes a cause I care much about, has strengthened my resolve to wear a bow tie with pride. Now all I need do is pick the one I want. The following, from Drake’s is a particular favourite…[xvi]

[i] See previous post, ‘Them Boots, Them Boots’. October 21, 2012.

[ii] The compilation of the Dandy to Dangerous Scale is 100% unscientific.

[iii] For what follows, see ‘Introduction: The Field of Men’s Fashion’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (Oxford & New York, 2009), 1-11.

[iv] N. Elias, The Civilising Process: Sociogenetic & Psychogenetic Investigations, tr. E. Jephcott, revised edition, ed. E. Dunning, J. Goudsblom & S. Mennell (London, 1994); Idem, The Court Society, tr. E. Jephcott (New York, 1983).

[v] M.C. O’Flaherty, ‘Best-Case Scenario’, how to spend it: special Christmas edition (November 17, 2012), 25-26.

[vii] www.stiffonline.com. On public sale from December, the pipe can now be purchased direct from Stiff for EUR 625/$800.

[ix] Shamelessly taken from the Stiff website: www.stiffonline.com/about/about2/. Accessed: 23-xj-2012.

[x] R. Shields, ‘A Tale of Three Louis: Ambiguity, Masculinity and the Bow Tie’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, 108-16.

[xi] ‘Undies go inside the pants’. November 10, 2012.

[xii] Shields, ‘A Tale of Three Louis’, 109.

[xiii] Ibid., 115.

[xv] A. Tschorn, ‘It’s a fashion statement with political and personal ties’. www.latimes.com/features/image/la-ig-tie-the-knot-20121118,0,2087976.story. Accessed: 19-xj-2012.

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