Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

The Stag (or understanding the development of men’s dress)

If you want to understand the development of men’s dress, all you need do is think about the stag. Associated with hunting, family crests, a popular sports car from the Triumph Motor Company and the name of many English pubs, the stag also exhibits many characteristics typically associated with men: it is proud, territorial and possesses a loud bark. If the can stag represent men – in a roundabout way – I think it can also explain their outlook and, more specifically, their attitude towards dress, by way of the following mnemonic: (S)tatus, (T)radition, (A)rtful, (G)ender.

Status

Market research and sociological studies confirm what history has long shown: men share an underlying sensitivity about their socio-economic status, which becomes acute during times of financial stringency, despite the existence of myriad masculinities.[i] During the recent recession and that of the 1970s, for example, it was noted that men eschewed a classical style of dress – the suit – immediately after the ‘crash’ occurred.[ii] They readopted it when economic recovery was underway. The rejection of the suit, it was argued, helped men to distance themselves from negative associations linked to greed and corruption (i.e. the ‘fat cat’ banker), irrespective of whether they worked in the financial sector. In place of corresponding jacket and trousers – the ‘ditto’ – men adopted mix n’ match top and bottoms to demonstrate a softer, more humane side of their character.[iii] When the economy began to strengthen, the return of the suit stimulated renewed interest in past vogues that communicated men’s social and economic position overtly.[iv] After our recent recession, men embraced styles and dress accessories from the 1920s and 1980s (including fedoras, pocket squares, correspondent shoes, cigars, Stetsons, lapel pins and tin bars). It is hardly coincidental that these were two decades when men’s social and economic positions seemed unassailable. The result of this sartorial renaissance, if taken to its extreme, was a return of the peacock or dandy.

Another indicator of men’s status paranoia is the stark divide that exists between their professional (public) and leisure (private) dress. It is really only in the latter area that men have had greater freedom to explore their individual masculinity beyond the workaday constraint of the suit. That said, even off-work, men’s concern with status persists, as the various labels, ‘New Man’, ‘Metrosexual’, ‘Spornosexual’ and ‘Lumbersexual’, etc., attest.[v]

Tradition

Men’s concern for status has produced a degree of conservatism within their clothing. For over 200 years, the silhouette of dressed men has been informed by the suit, a garment usually attributed to a clothing reform during the reign of King Charles II (7 October 1666, to be precise). The importance of heritage and legacy to men is most apparent in their renewed interest in tailoring, which followed the economic downturn of 2008. According to Jason Basmajian, creative director at Savile Row’s Gieves & Hawkes, their 2015 Autumn/Winter collection is all about men appearing ‘unashamedly successful’.[vi] Basmajian is not alone in trying to court male shoppers by appealing to dress designs and ideas from the past. Many of the ‘key looks’ at this year’s fashion shows drew inspiration from historic sources, including the BBC’s long-running comedy series Only Fools and Horses, which is apparently responsible (or culpable?) for the revival of the sheepskin coat.[vii]

The role of the media in determining men’s fashion should not be ignored. According to Matthew Vaughn, director of new movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, and brainchild of the film’s complementary range of men’s clothing, ‘most guys want to look like an image or person they’re inspired by rather than create their own look’.[viii] In this sense, men demonstrate sartorial traditionalism by showing a preference for styles that are tried and tested, rather than avant-garde.

Artful

Traditional it might be, but men’s dress has long shown itself to be artful, which in the strict sense of the term means ‘clever’. If the clothed silhouette of men has conjured with the suit since the reign of Charles II, there have been considerable changes in the cut, colour and texture of the men’s beloved wardrobe staple. The suit’s truncated reinterpretation by New York designer Thom Browne remains the most creative, striking and imitated. At the recent London Collections: Men, Sibling’s pink presentation achieved its humour and appeal through the clever juxtaposition of feminised designs and styles of dress traditionally associated with men and male authority – the shirt and tie.

Gender

If market research and sociological studies suggest that men have an underlying sensitivity about the socio-economic status, it has shown that men do not like being addressed en masse. Nor do they really like talking about their dress, which they continue to regard as a feminised area. Gender-based studies reliant on interviews for data gathering can be hampered by male respondents who become tongue-tied and vague when talking about their consumption of clothing. The same research reveals that a traditional view of masculinity – where men are physically adept, refrain from emotional displays and achieve professional success (indicated by income and professional role) – prevails in the twenty-first century (hence the recent talk of Spornosexuals and Lumbersexuals and, of course, the enduring appeal of the suit).[ix] Women’s increasing interest in formal tailoring – suit-clad females are frequently photographed at Pitti Uomo – will probably only make men’s attachment to, and defence of, the suit stronger.

[i] For background, see B.L. Wild, ‘The Great Masculine Revival’ (29 May, 2014): http://linleywild.com/2014/05/29/the-great-masculine-revival/. Accessed: 29 May, 2014.

[ii] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013), 125.

[iii] D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), 5.

[iv] J. Shi, ‘Three: the magic number’, Financial Times: Life & Arts 5/6 October, 2013), 5; P. Jobling, Advertising Menswear: Masculinity and Fashion in the British Media Since 1945 (London, 2014), 145-46.

[v] H.C.Mansfield, Manliness (New Haven & London, 2006), 22; M. Simpson, ‘Meat the Spornosexual’ (25 March, 2014): www.marksimpson.com/blog/2014/03/25/meat-the-spornosexuals/. Accessed: 27 March, 2014.

[vi] S. Doig, ‘London Fashion Week: Men’s Collections’, The Daily Telegraph (Wednesday, 14 January 2015), 25.

[vii] L. Cochrane, ‘Del Boy Chic’, The Guardian: G2 (Wednesday, 14 January 2015), 12-13.

[viii] J. Ellison, Come spy with me’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (17/18 January 2015), 6

[ix] For example: H. Frith & K. Gleeson, ‘Clothing & Embodiment: Men Managing Body Image and Appearance’, Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 5:1 (2004), 40-48; J. Galilee, ‘Class Consumption: Understanding Middle-Class Young Men and Their Fashion Choices, 5:32 (2005), Men and Masculinities, 32-52; S. Meghan Burn & A. Zachary Ward, ‘Men’s Conformity to Traditional Masculinity and Relationship Satisfaction, Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 6:4 (2005), 254-263.

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