There was an intense period of change in social, political, and fashion spheres during the 19th Century. Men increasingly adopted a penchant for dark coloured attire; most notably black emerged as a favoured choice of colour among all sectors of the male population. Trends in clothing towards functional simplicity became prominent in the early 1800s. The turn of the century also brought along an up-and-coming group of ultra-fashionable males known as ‘dandies’, the most renown being Beau Brummell. The de facto first English dandy said that pretentious apparel and the wearing of outstanding colours and fabrics for the purpose of drawing attention was an improper way to participate in society.
“Rather he should exercise rigorous restraint in his dress,” as Baudelaire suggests. Another important factor to consider is the bourgeois ethic which surfaced against a backdrop of gender equality struggle. Cultural theorist Flugel supports Baudelaire in his argument that there was a dramatic cutback in the male sartorial wardrobe. Men renounced the desire to be beautifully and elaborately dressed, endeavouring instead to be merely practical and functional. The emergence of the three-piece suit was an example of such changes in sartorial ideology. The austere and ascetic forms of sombre attire were deemed socially ‘correct’. The advancement of aesthetic fashion was left almost entirely to the female population.
In a previous era, royalty signalled their proximity to power through expensive jewels and fabrics. Later on, simplicity and minimalism became a fixture of American ideological discourse. The mass produced suit progressed to symbolise virtuous American polity. A very important phenomenon which took place during the great masculine renunciation was the transformation from brightly coloured sartorial garments to dark and undistinguished clothing. Black was originally only used for ecclesiastical attire or military uniforms. However by around 1830, black trousers and pantaloons were the rule. The result was a 19th Century that bore close resemblance to a perpetual funeral. Nevertheless, black was powerful. There was a close association of black dress with democracy, a bourgeois ethic, and potentially more equality between different classes through the elimination of individuality.
The key idea behind the great masculine renunciation is the desire by all to give an impression of sober propriety, an illusion for gaining respect. An important development which affected fashion was the Industrial Revolution. The inescapable fact of social emulation led to a copying in dress sense of families which prospered in manufacturing industries, caricatured as tall dingy men with a look of hostility behind black hair, clothes and faces. Moreover, clothes were made to a greater extent by machinery rather than labour, facilitated by the mechanization of the sewing machine; this instigated the standardization of male attire.
Breward points to the notion that during the great masculine renunciation, men embraced a sexual, psychological and physical release of the body from Victorian constraints, a denial of human nature. The endeavour for utility over style was predominantly caused by political changes in the period. The tendency towards more indistinctive dress was a result of a new ideal of work being respectable. Formerly, any forms of work connected with economic activities was shunned upon and considered as degrading to the dignity of those classes who chiefly set the fashion. The slogan of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” went against the decorative dress that was popular prior to the French Revolution. The democratization of clothes veered away from whimsical self-obsession towards greater social uniformity and consistency.
It is interesting to analyse the effects of the masculine renunciation on male psychology. The sacrifice of display although creating greater equality, denies men of their intrinsic narcissistic desires. Many men were investigated to be wholly dissatisfied with their costume range, dampening their exhibitionist love of self-display. This had been assumed to be potentially detrimental to certain social influences, such as sexual competition. However, eventually men accepted that the wearing of black actually became an advantage in the mating game. Black was deemed by Charles Darwin as a feature of sexual evolution. Even in modern times, black clothes are associated with having the ability to disguise fat and make the wearer appear thinner. Indeed, bright colours worn by men were and are still somewhat of a turnoff in the making of first impressions, especially with an underlying depiction of effeminacy. Even in present times, this trend is still noticeable. In Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mark Darcy becomes immediately unattractive to Bridget when they are first introduced because he is wearing a V-neck diamond-patterned sweater in shades of yellow, red and blue.
In the 19th Century, a group of ultra-fashionable men emerged, Beau Brummell taking the lead as one of the most renowned dandies. Other noticeable characters included Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde. These men were famous for their appearance and their oppositional fashion, setting the standard that ultimately influenced public opinion on male fashion. The main idea was that the dandy must not in any way dress ostentatiously to draw attention. Instead, he must be constrained in what he wears, not flaunting individuality by wearing surprising combinations of clothes. English dandies wore only black, brown or grey and this minimalist approach paradoxically became its own characteristic. The refusal of polychromatic projection in favour of stiffness, tightness, unnaturalness and even pain was a distinguishing trait of the dandy’s beauty. The dandy’s achievement is simply to be himself. An air of unfeeling coolness with unshakeable willpower is related to the typical dandy – “a latent fire….that does not choose to burst into flame”.
The formal introduction of the three-piece suit arose in the 17th Century at the court of Charles II, deriving from a French model. Economic as well as political rivalry with the French was central to its introduction. The two main cuts of the 3 piece suit consist of the double-breasted suit and the single breasted suit on which the sides just meet at the front down a single row of buttons. As the sartorial excesses of macaronis came under attack in revolutionary criticism, a more simplistic fashion took over as the symbol of manliness, furthermore carrying political legitimacy. Opposition to luxury and effeminacy promoted rather than inhibited men’s style of display.
Many literary works have put a context to the occurrence of the great masculine renunciation. The beauty of black and a reserved appearance, and its play in human sexual selection, was astutely observed by Bronte. At a party given by Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre records that the collective appearance of the gentlemen is very imposing; they are all costumed in black. Jane Austen also worked with dark enigmatic characters, one of the first female novelists to deal with masculine reserve. Characters such as Mr Darcy, dressed in a sharp suit or in a morning coat, top hat and tails can plausibly be descendents of Beau Brummell’s elegance.
Although the great masculine renunciation had an immense impact on the way men dressed in the 19th Century, the descent of the ‘metro-sexual’ male of the 21st Century seems to be proliferating. Men like Beckham, Jude Law and Orlando Bloom have been named as metro-sexuals on the basis that they embrace fashion, skin-care, shopping, and other attributes associated with femininity. An overriding component of their work is underpinned by their appearance as opposed to their ability or productivity. Nevertheless, it would be altogether inappropriate to predict an abandonment of the suit as an essential part of a man’s wardrobe. As a consequence, absolute sartorial equality between men and women does not seem a likely scenario in the near future.
The great masculine renunciation can be distinctly defined by Flugel as a period of aesthetic rejection by men in pursuit of greater equality and democracy in society and respectability in the public sphere. The adoption of simplistic and undistinguished styles of dress and the wearing of black as a predominant choice of colour for both day and evening wear were significant effects of 19th Century fashion. It is not necessarily true that all forms of fashion were annihilated in the extreme manner of Flugel’s argument. His formulation does not exist without criticisms, such as the lack of empirical research across social classes.