Defining Masculinity: Men's Fashion Throughout History

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

By: Faith Brammer




Harry Styles cause a stir with his December 2020 Vouge cover, where he donned a ruched ball gown. The image sparked backlash from several Conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, who tweeted the image above.


Is Harry Styles’ dress a threat to masculinity as we know it? What is a manly man? If we look back at the timeline of Western fashion, we’ll see that for most of history men were looking less than manly, by modern standards.


Harry Styles is not the only man who has been challenging modern gender norms when it comes to fashion. David Bowie, Kid Cudi, Marc Jacobs, Timothee Chalamet and many more men have been channeling a more effeminate look or pushing the social limits for fashion.



1500s


Standing 6’2, King Henry the VIII, with his masculine facial hair and playboy past (He had six wives--two of which he had beheaded) was the epitome male virility.


Henry the VII’s jewel encrusted, embroidered and pompous style was a reflection of his masculinity and power-- women in his court were far more subdued.


Armoured with jewelry, tights, a miniskirt and silks to boot, Henry the VII was considered the peak of masculinity-- and known for his decadent style. We have several records describing Henry’s lavish style. In 1536, Henry VIII’s wardrobe consultant wrote:


“It’m for making a paire of hoose, upper stocked with carnacion-coloured satten, cutte and embrowdered with golde and also lyned with fyne white clothe, with two paire of nether stockis, the one paire skarlette, and the other paire blacke carsye.” (Cunnington)


Hans Holbein: Portrait of Henry VIII




1670s


The high heel was first designed specifically for men by the Persians, as a way of keeping feet secure in saddle stirrups.


Towards the end of the 17th century, Persian fashion integrated itself into European culture.


The wearing of red heels was limited to members of the royal court—red symbolizes wealth and power.


Expensive red bottoms sound familiar? Christian Louboutin’s famous stiletto heels are the modern day equivalent to the royal court’s footwear, but are marketed towards women. What was once considered the peak of male fashion dons the feet of wealthy Hollywood actresses and debutantes across the globe.


A true fashion icon, King Louis XIV also help popularize wigs for men. Women often wore their hair pinned back in a bun or braids, or even tucked away under a cap.


Men however, wore large elaborate wigs, sometimes dusted in perfumed powder to mask the smell of sweat or lice-- bathing regularly was not common yet.


Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XIV




1770s


Stuck a feather in his cap and called it: Macaroni.


In the late 18th century, the extravagant macaroni fashion planted roots in English society. Made popular by younger upper-class men who had just returned from the Grand tour, the trend built its foundation on wardrobes of large wigs and slim fitting, effeminate coats.


Once macaroni fashion became more mainstream, it grew more and more outlandish, featuring frilled coats, makeup and short breeches. The style morphed into less of a sign of worldly sophistication, to an outlandish style the media turned into a caricature. (As seen in this 1773 illustration)


Oxford Magazine published an article saying “a kind of animal, neither male, nor female, a thing of neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a Macaroni.” Macaronis became a hallmark symbol of breaking gender norms.


Philip Dawe: The Macaroni. A Real Character at the Late Masquerade.



1820s


Men wore corsets too! Corsets were originally used as support for strenuous exercise, particularly in the cavalry or army. It functioned as a sort of weight lifter’s belt.


With the rise of the dandy, a term used to describe a stylish and flamboyant man, many men took to wearing corsets in order to achieve the effeminate wasp waist effect that was popular with upper class men at the time


Valerie Steele, in The Corset: A Cultural History, explains that the popularization of the male corset was correlated to the shift in the ideal male body type. The “aristocratic” body was neither brawny or broad but had become thinner, longer and essentially more feminine. Some men even wore padded stockings to give their legs an “s-curve.” Like corsets, they emphasized shapeliness.


Men's Wear 1830-1849, Plate 070



For most of human history, men have taken a great interest in their appearance and fashion sense, with elaborate hairstyles and garments signifying wealth and power.


Perhaps what we can learn here is that masculinity or manliness isn’t something defined by how you dress. Clothing and social standards are ever changing. Our definition of a “manly man” is quite recent-- who is to say it won’t change again?



Sources

Men’s corsets:

“1840-1849.” Fashion History Timeline, New York University, 26 Mar. 2020, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1840-1849/.


Steele, Valerie. The Corset, A Cultural History. Yale University Press, 2007.


King Henry VIII:

“1530-1539.” Fashion History Timeline, New York University , 22 June 2019, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1530-1539/.


Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. Handbook of English Costume in the Sixteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.


Macaronis:

Shipley, Joseph T. The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001.


Heels:

Dabashi, Hamid. Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene. Harvard University Press, 2015.











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