The Untold History of the First Men’s Style Revolution

In a previous post, I explained how King Charles II first mandated the use of a three piece suit for court wear.

The period after his edict has since become known as the “Great Renunciation.”  Because within less than a half a century, men discarded the brightly colored fabrics, satins and velvets, and lace and embroidery that characterized the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy.  This included high, red heeled shoes!  See those worn by super snazzy King Charles XIV.

Tailored and Styled Blog Post 10 Mar 13--King Louis XIV

Loubourtin anyone?

Tailored and Styled Blog Post 10 Mar 13--Louboutin Shoe

(See this BBC link for a fascinating story of men and high heeled shoes)

The Great Renunciation occurred during a period of great political upheaval in Europe including the American and French democratic revolutions, the Irish Rebellion, the Regency Crisis, the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, and Great Britain’s subsequent imperial expansion.  Huge economic change occurred with the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

In England, this political and economic cauldron boiled over into a struggle for power between royalty and the merchant class.  Both group’s identities were directly tied to their legitimacy to wield power.

The aristocracy progressively rejected the ideology of luxurious display in favor of one of “inconspicuous consumption.”  This sartorial approach was characterized by sober colors and simplicity.  It reinforced through external dress an ethic of rationality, self-restraint, and moral virtue.

Here’s a painting of Adolphus Hanover, 1st Duke of Cambridge.  The Duke is dressed in conservative dark blue frock that matches the background.  He has no wig and his expression is steady and controlled.  The only ornamentation is a medallion depicting his royal status.  Quite a difference from even 20 years before when aristocratic dress was much brighter and more ostentatious.

Tailored and Styled Blog Post 10 Mar 13--Adolphus Hanover, 1st Duke of Cambridge

(Painting by William Beechey, 1800)

For middle class businessman, modesty in dress was nothing new:  it was previously legislated in the form of sumptuary laws (laws that regulate consumption) that prevented them from wearing luxurious clothing.  This modesty was coupled to an ideology of freedom and liberty hard won and justified through revolution.  It also symbolized virtuous hard work and frugal living—the opposite of aristocratic entitlement and landed leisure.  In the painting of a monied lawyer below, note the sober, earthy colors of both the background and the clothing as well as the serious, even challenging expression.

Tailored and Styled Blog Post 10 Mar 13--Charles Christie Esquire

(Painting of Charles Christie, Esq by Henry Raeburn, 1800)

So here we have a dynamic where the main components of an ideological basis for a style of dressing were claimed by two distinct political classes vying for power.

For both, the three piece suit embodied virtue, modesty, frugality, and industry.  But most importantly for both, wearing a three piece suit communicated legitimacy of claims to political and social power.

Virtue.  Modesty.  Frugality.  Industry.  Legitimacy.  Power.

Could these be some of the principles that still underlie the idea of classic men’s style?

Tell me what you think!

By Joe Scherrer | Tailored and Styled Writer

Leave a Reply