In his book Culture and Everyday Life, Andy Bennett provides a definition of fashion that highlights the fact that fashion has a particular utilitarian function wholly apart from that of clothing, and though a simple observation, this fact forces one to reconsider how men's fashion has been regarded for at least the last eighty years. In his book, Bennett writes that "fashion provides one of the most ready means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities," a claim most people would readily agree with (Bennett 2000, p. 96). However, this claim has not been taken to its logical conclusion in the many major academic texts regarding fashion, and particularly men's fashion, due to the erroneous belief that at some point in the nineteenth century, men "renounced" fashion, deeming it feminine and thus outside the sphere of male activity. In reality, the so-called "Great Masculine Renunciation" was not a renunciation of the practice of fashion, but rather a renunciation of the acknowledgment of that practice by men; in other words, while the nineteenth century did see dramatic changes in the role of men and women in society which included changes in dress, men never ceased to use fashion as a "means through which [they could] make expressive visual statements about their identities," even as they began to claim the opposite. In order to understand why this was the case, and why this fact has been missed so completely by a number of critics, it will be necessary to investigate the history of men's fashion beginning the nineteenth century all the way up to today.
One of the most important academic texts regarding fashion came in 1930, when John Carl Flugel wrote The Psychology of Clothes. In a portion of the book, he discusses a historical shift which he dubs "the Great Masculine Renunciation," in which "man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful," such that "he henceforth aimed at being only useful," and thus "so far as clothes remained of importance to him, his utmost endeavors could only lie in the direction of being 'correctly' attired, not of being elegantly or elaborately attired" (Flugel 1930, p. 111). Taken simply as an argument that "man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful" during the nineteenth century, Flugel's thesis might be considered sound, because for the most part, the nineteenth century did see men and women segregated into their respective "spheres," largely due to the popularity of the cult of domesticity in women's magazines and religious texts on the one hand and the need to assert individual masculine power in the face of the Industrial Revolution on the other. Women were expected to be docile, subservient, and sexually attractive, while men were required to conform to standardized roles in the workplace.
However, recognizing the changing roles of men and women is not where Flugel's claim ends. Instead, he suggests that this division of activity into gendered spheres meant that men essentially abstained from fashion over the course of the nineteenth century, and this notion has permeated the academic response to men's fashion, such that "modern men's fashions have been largely neglected; such attention as they have received is generally limited to questions of utility, omitting the nuances of male dress" (Entwistle 2000, p. 172). In reality, men did not abstain from fashion, but rather claimed to abstain from fashion while generating a distinct set of standards that served to convey particular meanings about class, sexual prowess, and social standing. It is almost stunning to consider the widespread recitation of Flugel's claims regarding the Great Masculine Renunciation when one considers the vast amount of evidence to the contrary, because even a cursory examination of what constituted being "correctly attired" in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveals a whole host of embedded meanings and expressive visual statements.
This is most obvious when one considers that "the main example of utility menswear, namely the suit, is as much a symbol of masculine sexuality in terms of broadening the shoulders and chest and connecting larynx to crotch through collar and tie, as it is a practical (if historically uncomfortable) uniform of respectability" (Edwards 1997, p. 3, in Entwistle 2000, p. 172-173). Thus, the nineteenth-century man wearing a "utilitarian" suit is engaging in a fashionable display just as much as the domestic woman, with the only difference being the particular meaning displayed. Flugel and others like him err by assuming that the only point of fashion is to be beautiful, or elegant, or elaborate; these are merely some of the possible meanings which can be created by clothing, but by no means is this list exhaustive. In addition to being beautiful, clothes can make one appear weak, powerful, domineering, sexually potent, or any number of other possibilities. The Great Masculine Renunciation, then, was not a renunciation of fashion, but rather a subtle codification of the range of acceptable meanings expressible through men's clothing, just as the cult of domesticity represented the range of acceptable personalities and behaviors for women.
Thus, when attempting to analyze men's fashion, one must be careful to recognize that for much of the last two centuries, men's fashion has been a kind of unspoken trade, wherein the expressive potential of clothing is recognized but carefully discussed so as not to be confused with the kind of "fashion" engaged in by women, which was considered frivolous. This "rigorous attention to structures of self denial and social distinction" can be seen in the discourse surrounding men's fashion at the time, which "incorporate[d] a gendered appreciation of the qualities of tailoring; echoing those areas of leisured cultural activity such as collecting, prioritized for men in the guise of connoisseurship while being demoted for women to the realm of the domestic chore or the trivial hobby" (Breward 1999, p. 60). For example, a catalog for menswear from 1912 states that "the necessity of having one's lounge suits well cut is obvious. The subtle details which elevate the expert cutter to a plane above the lesser lights of his profession are never more pronounced than in this important garment" (Breward 1999, p. 60). Here, the "utilitarian" suit is identified as a site of meaningful expression, because the quality of one's tailoring is an outward sign of expertise, experience, and competence. Thus, the quality of the suit represents the quality of the man, at precisely the time that, according to Flugel's thesis, men had supposedly abandoned fashion in lieu of strictly utilitarian clothes.
Despite the glaring error in his overall argument, Flugel nevertheless contributed to the evolution of men's fashion by making explicit what had previously been implicit. His claim that men had renounced fashion, although incorrect, helped to highlight the fact that men's fashion was especially limited, so that by the time he published his book, he had helped start the Men's Dress Reform Party, which was dedicated to "the aesthetic liberation of men" (Bourke 1996, p. 23). This began a gradual process of development whereby men's fashion became an acceptable topic of discussion, to the point that "a new generation of men would rise from the ashes of war: elitist, rather than democratic; masculine, without any taint of femininity; beautiful, not deformed" (Bourke 1996, p. 23). Following World War II, this trend exploded, largely due to the confluence of more visible subcultures, each with their own sartorial markers, and capitalist expansion. As men's fashion became an acceptable topic of discussion, it also became a far more profitable endeavor, as men's magazines and clothing manufacturers were able to begin manipulating men into idealizing certain images, body types, and styles in much the same way that had been done with women for years.
Only very recently has this trend begun to generate some form of gender equality in terms of media objectification and capitalist assimilation, because although it has become increasingly acceptable to acknowledge that men, and masculinity, depend upon fashion in precisely the same way as women, any hint that this acknowledgment might serve to feminize men or masculine fashion has been met with violent backlash (sometimes literally). For example, the "metrosexual" trope that emerged in the early 2000s may be seen as an attempt to induce men to spend the same time and money on their appearance as women have been instructed to do for years, but because of its homosexual undertones, it was not particularly effective in drawing more men into the consumerist fold. This is why in recent years it has been replaced by the image of an idealized man that is both physically strong and sexually alluring, as seen in commercials for Old Spice deodorant featuring "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," or Dove soap's Men+Care line of beauty products, with its tagline of "be comfortable in your own skin" (a line that might as well be appended with "it's ok, everyone knows you're not gay!"). These images appear to have been far more successful than the earlier metrosexual trope precisely because they do not attempt to…
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