Note: Much of this article is derived from Christopher Breward’s The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion, and City Life 1860-1914, David Kutchta’s The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England 1550-1850, Brent Alexander Shannon’s The Cut of his Coat: Men’s Dress and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914, and being able to see.
When first observed, historical men’s fashion looks elaborate and utterly foreign. However, this article; as well as the accompanying pictures, of greater import to this article than most, will tell the story of how men have managed to not change our sartorial design significantly in the last 400 years, with only minor additions in the early 1800’s and 1950’s. The origin of Modern men’s fashion originates with the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, and has only developed upon the mandates he laid out for court dress relatively little since.
The British Isles had been locked in religious turmoil throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Each of the Four Kingdoms had its own sectarian issues. The largest churches in Britain were the Established Church in England and Wales, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland, and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, which also maintained a presence in England, Wales and Scotland. In addition, there were Quakers, Anabaptists, and other so-called Non-Conformists, which included a nebulous group known as the Puritans. These people were the cause of many horrible occurrences: Civil Wars, turmoil, arguable genocide, regicide, and America. Not to mention eliminated fashion, theatre, music, poetry, and Christmas while they ruled Britain. An effective modern analogy to the interregnum of Oliver Cromwell is the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent government which arose during the aftermath.
After a series of Civil Wars due to King Charles I’s possible secret Catholicism and outrage over perceived Popery and Paganism in the Anglican Church, the Puritans, under an MP named Oliver Cromwell, created a government known as The Commonwealth (unrelated to the modern internationalist institution). Cromwell and his government were religious fanatics who endeavoured to eliminate everything enjoyable in England; whilst in the process of butchering nearly a third of the population of Ireland. Cromwell is arguably the only Hitlerian figure in British political history, while there have been dreadful stains on British historical timeline, there was never again a figure who enacted so much destruction, so quickly, and from outside the regular sphere of politics. So when Cromwell died, and his son Richard Cromwell did not prove the strong leader his father had been, the political class of Britain decided to invite the son of the executed King Charles I, Charles II, to return from exile as the restored king.
Charles in his day was known as “The Merry Monarch”. He was fond of clothing, parties, fashion, and mistresses. He holds the somewhat dubious honour of having fathered more recognized bastard children than other British monarch. Though, Charles was not a mere playboy, during the Great Fire of London he is known to have helped put out the fires himself, and did much to improve the houses of the people who lived there subsequent to it, as well as beautify much of the city of London. However, Charles’ standardization of male court dress is the important point to the article. During Cromwell’s interregnum, clothes legally had to be plain and either white or black for Puritan religious reasons. When Charles standardized court dress it meant to be in court, you had to be a natty dresser. Men’s clothing had to consist of a coat, vest, neckwear, and, at the time, short pants and stockings. The modern suit was born.
While these items had already existed, what was new was their standardization and legal mandatory nature. Modern neckwear was invented by Croatian mercenaries serving in the French Army as a practical alternative to the lace ruffle, bowties and straight ties were considered different methods of tying the same garment in those days. Men’s fashion would change very little until the early 1800’s, with only minor adjustments in lapels, cuffs, and wig styles, which went from straight down to pony tailed in the end of the 1700’s. While this is true for court men, what about every day men? Once again, their clothing would have been somewhat recognizable. Daily clothing was largely a loose fitting shirt, often made of light wool, or cotton by the 1700’s, a belt, stockings made of wool, and often, denim, which was called serge de Nimes. This set of clothes remained remarkably unchanged for the previous thousand years. They wore practical clothing for their work, often with a brimmed hat to keep the sun off. The working class man was responsible for the greatest male fashion advance of the last two hundred years: trousers. Men prior to the Industrial Revolution wore stockings with short pants. However, working with the new machines made wearing stockings unsafe and costly, as they would not protect one’s shins. As such, long trousers were invented. These did not catch on with the Aristocracy, as during the French Revolution they were considered symbolic of political radicalism, due to their connection with the fathers of industry rather than the rural aristocracy, until a noted socialite Beau Brummel began to wear them, as well as the British general Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. With trousers invented, men wouldn’t really change their wardrobe much, rather than ceasing wearing wigs other than the occasional toupee, as in France the Aristocracy ceased wearing them as they labeled one an aristocrat, and therefore possible to lose your head as well as your wig, until a late Victorian idea of the “Male Renunciation”
According to the late Victorians, men did not care about fashion as it was viewed as womanly. However, this largely amounted to men wearing shorter coats with narrower lapels in colours varying from grey to black, brown to beige, and dark blue to navy. From the late 1800’s to the present day, the male suit has changed relatively little. As well, casual clothes had evolved relatively little as well, until the 1950’s, with the final major addition to the male wardrobe: the t-shirt.T-shirts had existed throughout the 1800’s, but worn as a form of undergarments. However, men working in hot conditions during World War Two began to wear them alone. As well, Marlon Brando in the film A Streetcar Named Desire wore one, and they became more socially acceptable. They were usually white or monochrome until the 1960’s. Largely, since then, they have only variated on a theme.
As such, with only minor alterations, men’s fashion has indeed changed very little in the previous 400 years. Largely, the only differences are in cut and colour scheme, as opposed to form.King Charles II’s standardization of dress did not change dress, rather than regulate it. As such, men’s clothing for most of the world has been shaped by a single decree by a 17th century British king, which is a nice bit of mud in the face to Oliver Cromwell.