Music and dancing have always been central to the fashionable life. Think of the waltz, the tango and jive, all of which had an impact on the individual’s approach to dress. At the end of the Second World War, a new male attitude was first seen in America, with Hispanic and black people developing a new confidence in their culture and colour and, with it, a new dance – boogie-woogie – and dress.
It was to show that they rejected American attitudes as much as American attitudes rejected them. And key to that approach was speaking their own slang language and to take the standard GI demob suit and create a slang look from that as well. The impossibly wide shoulders of the zoot suit, as it was known, and the long draped jacket seemed grotesque to most men in America, and was only of limited interest to dance hall guys in London and Paris. The look was not only sexy but louche and proved ideal for attracting girls and worrying the police. In England, paradoxically, it was the cause of the last fashion change created by upper-class dandies in protest at what they thought was an outrage to the dignity of man.
They were a small cadre of men whose habitat was Mayfair, men who may well have heard the words East End but had little idea of what or where it was – why would they? Their epicentre was Savile Row, an area of “town”, as they always called Lon- don, which, along with their shirtmakers and bootmakers and their club, was “home”. Cecil Beaton and Hardy Amies were high-profile leaders in this flowering of vanity and self-esteem. They were rarely seen without an immaculately knotted tie, a perfectly furled umbrella, and a precisely placed bowler on their heads. It was an aberration, in a way, as it looked back instead of forward. No wonder the press soon dubbed it Edwardian. It had little effect on most men, but its influence on young men was considerable. Suddenly, or so it seemed, every working-class guy aged from early teens to well into his twenties had to have a long-lapelled, drape suit with tight trousers. But it was a more complicated situation than that. As is often the way with men, rivalries quickly grew in working-class districts. They were based, as most men’s rivalries are, on hero worship – for one’s own area or patch, its local expressions, its footballers and, above all, its music. Women shared many of these fatuous infatuations but they stood back in amazement over the fact that gangs would fight each other over things as transitory as dress.
But they did. And, to a degree, still do. But with a basic difference. Whereas for most of the centuries of civilisation in the West, occupation or the lack of it, dictated dress patterns. The so-called peasants who did manual, dirty and often dangerous and unhealthy work for very low wages were instantly recognised as poor, judged ignorant and frequently treated worse by their self-selected superiors than the same person’s horses and gun dogs were. And that was it, except for the tentative growth of the middle classes, whose dress codes hovered uneasily between the sobriety of the priest, the glamour of the gentleman and the practicality of the worker. Class-defining uniforms, they were ruled by remarkably rigid but largely unwritten guidelines.
In brief, very poor working men wore trousers often passed on by dead men, whose clothes were sold from barrows in the streets, and only in exceptional situations exposed their torsos. Aristocratic men wore silk stockings, richly embroidered outer garments, and powdered wigs, which retained their popularity for at least the majority of the 18th century.
Most people interested in dress have heard of the strange youthful craze that took hold during that century in sophisticated circles in England, and to a lesser degree, in Paris and some European courts. The movement was called macaroni, because it seemed to develop from the Grand Tour that the aristocratic young man was sent on as part of his experience. Even though most were in their late teens and early twenties (the Grand Tour normally being a rite of passage after graduating, which could be achieved as young as 15), they went chaperoned and guided by academics, clerics and members of their family. They learnt the history and rules of taste in the cities and courts of Italy, Germany and France. But the place they adored was Rome for its “anything goes” social and sexual freedoms, of which Byron took full advantage. They learnt how to behave in international society, although it must be admitted that, regardless of age, many returned with other mementoes, not least syphilis.
However, for our purposes, much more important was the fact that the macaronis, despite the scorn heaped on them by society, played a vital role in the development of male fashion, in that the style weakened the previously unquestioned role of royalty to set the fashion tone and, by doing so, created a fashion change as something that could happen without a royal lead. But, of course, until the second half of the 20th century, when the stance of rulers weakened as far as masculinity was concerned, although a man might legally wear a skirt in public, it had to be identified as a kilt – as an item of dress so firmly ensconced in the vocabulary of the highlander that it was even worn by Scottish soldiers, not usually sissies.
The Second World War marked the last period during which formal dress for man was not only the height of elegance but also worn in cities and in the country, in keeping with the male penchant for conformity and correctness. Open-necked shirts in public, not wearing a tie, having a silk handkerchief tucked in the breast pocket and usually wearing a formal hard hat in a city and a soft tweet hat or cap in the country. Shoes carried their own mystique. Black leather “was the only thing for cities”, but it was not permitted in the country, except for the clergy, medical men and schoolmasters – all others worn brown leather brogues. Brown suede shoes were seen as worrying. For years they were considered a sign of social deviance and possible sexual irregularity, until the Prince of Wales wore them in London and much of the opprobrium vanished.
Whether male or female, the object of dress is to make the wearer noticeable and even enviable. Clothing for both sexes is about dressing a part, but gala dress is about standing out from the crowd, whether at Glastonbury or one of the multitude of red carpet events. And this is still a worrying area for many men, even after the huge success of “fancy” dressers such as Liberace, a shimmering vision encased in gold lamé and fake jewels, through to David Bowie, whose otherworldly appearance opened up the idea of androgyny as something natural. The theme song was I Am What I Am by Gloria Gaynor, often followed by YMCA, sung by Village People.
And that was probably the major breakthrough, not only for homosexuals but for confident men prepared to face their sexual ambiguity, or simple desire to show off or even shock, not for the charity fundraiser but because they see no reason why they shouldn’t. And their clothes, outré as they often seem, are slowly, but inevitably, gaining ground.
So, are we seeing a major sea change in men’s attitudes to self? It could just be. Whereas in the past fashionable and powerful men have layered themselves in satins, silks and velvets to bulk out their figures to emphasise their strength, at this point young men of fashion are increasingly dressing as they wish, regardless of the approbation or contempt of their peers, and it can only be hoped that this new confidence will spread. To quote the English poet William Wordsworth (not, alas, a stylish dresser), “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” The message is clear, so let’s remember that fashion is not a straight line but a wheel and it sometimes takes time to come round. So, support things arcane. At the end of the day you might come out smelling of roses.
“Sexy” was a new word in the 1950s, especially when used to describe young men, but it has stuck and looks to continue for a long time yet. Most men – and certainly those under 30 – have at least one pair of jeans. Many have wardrobes chockablock with them, going back to the slashed and ripped, the faded, patched and even bell-bottomed. They are perfect for the young, slim figure: they flatter the legs and mould a shapely bum.
But now young designers are beginning to use their catwalks to bring to our attention a new look. Increasingly, we see young male models come down the runway in skirts – long and flowing, or more likely, narrow and mini. There is a clear move towards feminisation in menswear and that could have a life, although probably not a long one. We will know it has happened when big, beefy rugby players come out of the tunnel with their increasingly brief shorts enhanced by a lace trim! But let’s not hold our breath yet.
by Colin McDowell
Issue 15 of 10 Men – GENTLE, SENSUAL, FANTASY – is out NOW.