When men began to dress “like men”

Unconventional outfits (some examples) are seen more and more often on the red carpets of social events, but in the most common contexts even today Western men dress “like men”, that is, with that kind of uniform made of trousers, shirt and jacket, while women have many more options. However, the gender differences in the way we dress were not always what we are used to, and centuries ago even among men’s clothes, at least those of those who could afford it, there was great variety.

Things changed between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the industrial revolution and the birth of bourgeois society, which led to the codification of men’s clothing as we know it today. This is one of the things that Andrea Batilla, fashion expert and consultant for various companies, tells in his latest book How you dress. What lies behind the clothes you wear, published earlier this month by Mondadori. In the first chapter, of which we publish an excerpt, Batilla explains that the style choices of King Charles II of England, who wanted to distinguish himself from the opulence of his cousin Louis XIV of France, also contributed to the change, moving the English fashion away from the French one.


Anyone who had traveled from Paris to London around the end of the eighteenth century would have noticed that the ways of dressing were very different: the Parisians who at the time had no less than Louis XVI as their king (the one who was beheaded a few months before his wife, the famous Marie Antoinette, during the Revolution) and who were painstakingly getting out of the Rococo style considered elegant a man who wore a long silk jacket with (real) gold embroidered edges combined with breeches below the knee (culotte) of the same fabric, a waistcoat long always in silk and with embroidered edges, a linen collar with a neckerchief trimmed in lace, velvet shoes with heels and with a red sole (yes, just like those shoes there …), a more or less gigantic wig sprinkled of ash or flour and a trick that by comparison Kim Kardashian’s contouring is for amateurs.

The British, on the other hand, had a more practical clothing deriving essentially from the fact that they lived much more in the countryside than in the city and that they began to frequent factories rather than noble palaces: a Scottish baron would have put on a frock coat in wool with a flat collar and fitted sleeves, a long vest with (real) suede culottes, riding boots and natural hair and face. On this point it is fundamental to remember that the classic English lord that we have well fixed in our imagination was in the countryside not because he had bucolic aspirations or felt more romantic than his French or German colleagues, but because his landholdings first and the factories immediately after. they were all far from London. The residences in the middle of the moor were not vacation places, as perhaps many believe, but places of work first of the aristocracy and then of the new entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, which moreover over time mixed thanks to very interested marriages on both sides: a title, who wanted the money. This lifestyle was one of the main drivers of change in the way of dressing of the men of the nineteenth century as well as, of course, being the narrative center of the television series Downton Abbey.

Even if still during the Seven Years War, which took place between 1756 and 1763 and involved the whole world known at the time, mainly clashing France and England, some English officers left for the battlefields with travel kits. which included perfumes, lipsticks, powders, blushes and mascara, this was no longer the norm for an English gentleman or bourgeois. To fit the wig of Sir Lumley Skeffington, a whimsical nobleman who in his spare time was a playwright at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it took 6 waiters, but in general his exaggerated look was looked upon with a certain disgust especially by members of the rising middle class, who they nicknamed it “French toy” and began to circulate the adjective “effeminate” in a highly derogatory sense. In 1795 in England with the Duty on Hair Powder Act a law was issued by Parliament which, to finance the wars against Napoleonic France, applied a salty tax on the flour that men and women put on their hair. The term Whigs (wigs) designates precisely the progressive part of the English Parliament which, close to the spirit of the French Revolution, no longer used them. Then tell me that fashion is not a serious matter.

The bourgeois uniform is thus formed as a progressive detachment from the aristocratic one and each of its features is born as a rejection of the previous aesthetics and ethics. The very concept of effeminacy, as we have said, which did not exist before the nineteenth century, is created and assumes a negative meaning precisely in this period for a simple reason of differentiation between working males and non-doing males, while the word “homosexuality” appears for the first time in 1869 thanks to Karl-Maria Kertbeny because, as Paolo Zanotti explains very well in his book The gay, where it is told how homosexual identity was invented, the bourgeoisie gives enormous importance to sexuality as an identity factor and the ability to control instincts that are considered low and unseemly is considered a sign of superiority. Everything contributes to the creation of the new paradigm of the upright man who has made himself and who keeps everything under control.

There is, however, a semimitological episode that tells the beginning of this split between the serious practicality of English dressing and the now spooky clothes. ancien régime French. It is the story of Charles II of England, cousin of that Louis XIV familiarly known as the Sun King.

Charles II is proclaimed king of England on January 30, 1649, the day his father Charles I is beheaded by the anti-monarchist rebels led by Oliver Cromwell, who in doing so transform England into a republic. Between 1646 and 1650 Charles II actually lived in a golden exile at the court of his cousin Louis XIV, then trying to militarily oppose the Cromwell regime and become the new ruler. Carlo finds a country divided by war, practically prey to anarchy and, as if that weren’t enough, in 1665 he has the biggest plague epidemic ever to hit London and the following year a devastating fire that practically razed to the ground. the city. It could not have been worse and for this reason one of the first things the new king decides to do is to change his way of dressing, stopping to imitate the extravagant French Catholic customs and habits and adhering to the much more sober customs of the rebels, who they were an Orthodox part of the Protestants and called themselves “Puritans”. More or less, today the adjective still has the same meaning, and if you don’t know what I mean just look at yourself The Villagea beautiful 2004 film by M. Night Shyamalan, which speaks of a Puritan community in the United States of the nineteenth century.

The Puritans were a religious group that today we would define as “Orthodox extremists”, because they observed literally the behaviors prescribed by the Bible, professed total freedom of worship and above all detested any type of hierarchy. What interests us, however, is that the Puritans, in order to distinguish themselves from the rich royalist nobles, decide, among other things, to stop wearing wigs and to cut their hair like a page boy. They are therefore called in a derogatory sense roundheadsround heads, but in reality they sow the seeds of a very strong aesthetic division, which goes towards a great simplification of the way of appearing and will become one of the hallmarks of the rising bourgeois class.

Realizing what the dominant thought was in his homeland, Carlo reduces his clothing to three pieces: a long vest, a jacket or coat in English wool and a linen shirt (in addition, of course, to trousers). A look very far from that of the more famous and sumptuous cousin, but definitely closer to the habits of the English, more respectful of the Protestant (and Puritan) religion and the real point of origin of what will become the wardrobe of modern man.

Edition published in agreement with Donzelli Fietta Agency
© 2022 Mondadori Libri SpA, Milan

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About Banner Leon

Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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