Men’s Clothing, and How Men Used Their Fashion and Appearance to Construct Their Masculine Identity, as Well as Their Social Class

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Accordingly, the rhetoric of men’s fashion takes the form of a set of denials that include the following propositions: that there is no men’s fashion; that men dress for fit and comfort, rather than for style; that women dress men and buy clothes for men; that men who dress up are peculiar; that men do not notice clothes, and that most men have not been duped into the endless pursuit of seasonal fads. (Craik, 1994: 176)   Finkelstein once noted: ‘In contemporary society, a frequent complaint is that men are left out of the fashion rush’ (1996: 61). However, in fact, men’s fashion changed regularly, and there were numerous types of jackets, trousers, cravats, ties, and hats that provided plenty of material for asserting or maintaining social status (Delpierre, 1990). This essay focuses on men’s clothing, and how men used their fashion and appearance to construct their masculine identity, as well as their social class. To begin with, it talks about the Sumptuary Laws applied to the Medieval Men Clothing, and how the bourgeois class emulates aristocratic elements later. Second, it compares the Macaroni image with the plainness of the new rich, and is followed by Brummel’s new restrained code of men’s dress. Lastly, it analyses McCracken’s assertions that Simmel’s theory should apply to more social groups including gender. The key themes are imitation and differentiation.   The trickle-down theory of Simmel (1904) states that – imitation acts as a form of social adaptation or conforming, whilst differentiation acts as a form of individual separation or distinction; the tension is mapped onto the question of social class as the lower or working classes are seen as trying to imitate the higher or middle classes who in turn try to differentiate themselves from the lower or working classes, setting up an endless paper chase. In other words, it is about the two opposing forces of individuation and sociality, which can be explained as the desire to fit and the desire to stand out.   The sumptuary laws specified the types of material and ornaments that could be used by members of different social classes (Hurlock, 1965), and lasted from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, is a good example of the attempt that ‘the desire of the courts of kings or the upper classes to distinguish themselves from the others’. For instance, in Greenwich Time on 15 June 1574, Queen Elizabeth rewrote the English Sumptuary Laws, namely the ‘Status of Apparel’, states that, only the Royalty is permitted to wear purple silk clothing with doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; by contrast, the lower class men were only allowed to wear clothing in brown, beige, yellow, orange, russet, green, grey and blue colors, and the materials of clothing allowed were wool, linen and sheepskin. The penalties for violating the Sumptuary Laws include fines, the loss of property, title and even life (Elizabethan Clothing for Men). The purpose of Sumptuary Laws is to clearly identify the rank and privilege, since it regulated the social class structure though restrictions on clothing expenditure. In addition, to be more important, the laws prevented individuals to imitate the fashion and appearance of aristocrats, and enabled the aristocrats to enhance their social standing through sartorial distinctiveness. As a result, there was only ‘differentiation’ allowed to exist within the Medieval Europe society whereas ‘imitation’ was forbidden.   Over time the rules set by the court had broken down, the growing bourgeois class and minor gentry embodied the desire for material goods and conspicuous consumption. The bourgeoisie wanted to live nobly by acquiring goods that ‘imitated aristocratic style from the past’ (Williams, 1982). For the wealthy business classes, the men’s clothing which was based on breeches, doublet and cloak, had become elaborate and extravagant, which just looked aristocratic; for instance, as if resources permitted, these garments were...
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