Dandy Style: 250 Years of British Men's Fashion, by Shaun Cole and Miles Lambert
Yale University Press, 2021
This is a fascinating, yet strangely contradictory, study of the practice and development of men’s fashion in the past 250 years. While it is not a chronological overview of the period, the collection of essays examine in some detail specific aspects of the history of men’s clothing and, although expertly written, they do not represent a comprehensive history. Each chapter is beautifully illustrated, and the photographs contribute enormously to the arguments made in the text. The whole combines to make a thoughtful contribution to the study of an often neglected aspect of social history.
The opening chapter is an explanation of how the Manchester City Art Gallery acquired its collection of men’s clothing. Early on much of it was donated, but as the collection grew, certain gaps were noticed and these were filled with purchases and further donations, until the whole reached its present state. Unlike oil paintings, which often cost prohibitive amounts, a collection of historic clothes can be acquired relatively cheaply, but they are subject to the vagaries of subjective taste. Clothes are primarily a functional item, made to be used and then discarded. However, it is clear from some of the exquisite eighteenth- and nineteenth-century costumes illustrated here that many are items of singular beauty and considerable expertise. A court suit from 1770-85, a part of the Stanley acquisition purchased in 1952, is remarkable both for the lavish decoration and for its survival —truly a work of art in its own right. However, the messages that it conveys are rather contradictory. Extraordinarily beautiful and with extremely delicate workmanship —probably, as the text informs us, embroidered by professional French needlewomen— the wearer of such a suit would be instantly recognised as one of the Court’s inner circle. However, such clothes would also distance the same man from the majority of the population. The cost alone would have been more than many would earn in a year, and certainly the women employed in such work would have struggled to make a living.
The following chapter is even more problematic. It concerns the clothes purchased and worn by Sir Roy Strong, a former museum director and eminent art historian, and Mark Reed, an art collector and man of independent wealth, which both men then donated to the Fashion Museum in Bath. While the clothes themselves are of interest, mostly purchased from high-end designers like Armani and Versace, some of the assumptions and conclusions drawn are less tenable. The basic problem here is how far the taste of two fashion-conscious men can be considered representative of the time in which they live. While certain men have influenced the way that fashion has evolved, Beau Brummell being the most obvious example, the argument for influence is less convincing when the men concerned are merely purchasing designer clothes from well-established clothiers. A 1971 photograph of Roy Strong emerging from a Covent Garden bar, wearing a three-piece black velvet suit, admirably illustrates the point. At the same time that this photograph was taken, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were designing and selling punk clothing which used everyday objects for deliberate effect. Ripped clothes were held together with safety pins, or were wrapped in masking tape, to draw attention to what Westwood and McLaren saw as the excess of the fashion world at that time. While the clothes that Strong and Reed have donated to the collection in Bath are clearly of interest and importance to the historian of men’s fashion, they are a microcosm of selected historical styles, and reveal little beyond the expensive tastes of the men themselves. The clothes shown to illustrate their donations are very much of their time, and, as they often came from the very best (and most expensive) designers, it is unsurprising that they are beautiful objects in their own right. Yet they are strangely anonymous. Despite the claim that they present an insight into the lives of the men who purchased and wore them, they fail to create any sense of the impact that they might have had on those who saw them. A fundamental issue rears its head, one that is difficult to resolve — namely that we may choose our clothes for the message that we intend to send to others, but there is no guarantee that they will receive that message. Does a man merely mean to show that he cares about clothes and has the means to dress well, or is he demonstrating his superiority in taste and wealth?
The following chapter on what men wear in their portraits is of more interest, for it examines in some detail the role of clothes in creating an image made for public consumption. The clothes chosen for display in portraits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were of the utmost importance. While rich fabrics allowed the artist to show off their skills, the more sumptuous they were, the greater the prestige that they gave the subject. A Thomas Lawrence portrait of Humphry Davy (1821) is a fine example of how clothes are key in communicating subtle messages, messages which presumably had been agreed upon beforehand between artist and patron.
In this particular case, it should be noted that when the portrait was commissioned by the Royal Society, Davy was its President, and therefore it is safe to assume that it was intended to be hung in a prominent position within the premises of that organisation. Davy had been elected in November 1820, so the portrait was clearly produced to mark his appointment. At the time he was in his early forties, and at the pinnacle of his scientific career. He is shown facing the viewer with a confident look, asserting his authority. To his side is placed his invention, the miner’s lamp, which saved the lives of many who worked underground. The portrait serves several purposes, all of which are mutually complementary. Davy is clothed in the austere and restrained male style of the period, thereby placing him within the ranks of the most fashionable. Lawrence excelled at contrasting the pure white of the cravat with the greys and black of the outer clothes, emphasising their lack of pure colour. The classical background references the ambitions of the Royal Society, and Davy’s stance, one hand on his hip, the other firmly placed on the table beside his lamp, represents the contemporary masculine ideal of its time; confident and authoritarian, a subject sure of his place in the world of the portrait.
The final chapter, “Casual Subversion,” is amongst the most interesting. It follows reflections on how pop stars and other famous celebrities, including The Beatles and Chris Eubank, have used seemingly outrageous clothes to express their identity, leading naturally into a discussion of flamboyance and extravagance as a feature of men’s fashion since at least the eighteenth century. However, what is particularly significant about the closing essay is the way that it describes and analyses how some fashion may at first appear to be conforming to an expected style but in fact subtly distorts it, thereby creating change.
The rising popularity of sporting activity in the nineteenth century led to the development of clothes which made participation more comfortable. Sports ‘uniforms’ were looser and less restricting, and became acceptable both on and off the field. The author includes two illustrations of Edward, Prince of Wales, in which his clothes represent a dramatic shift towards the informal, and signal a sea-change in the way that this fashion conscious, extremely famous member of the Royal Family wished to be seen. The first painting, by John Lander (1923), shows the future king dressed for polo, that most royal of sporting pastimes. However, despite the black riding boots, he is draped in white, both jodhpurs and shirt clearly made for comfort, and the shirt in particular is soft with the sleeves rolled loosely around the arms. White riding gloves have been placed on the floor, and the heraldic feathers of the Prince of Wales decorate the wall behind him. Unlike many royal portraits which emphasise the traditional, both in setting and costume, this is clearly an attempt to show the heir to the throne as a modern trendsetter, in touch with popular culture rather than above it. The same artist painted another portrait in 1925 which repeated a similar message. This time the prince is clothed for a round of golf. He wears a brightly patterned Fair Isle sweater, a check cap and grey flannel trousers. To add to the conceit of his attempt to play the common man, he holds a terrier puppy in his arms, and the pair look out directly at the viewer, perhaps challenging us to acknowledge that this informality is both authentic and appropriate.
As the author makes clear, this was a vital step towards the merging of the formal and the casual, in which clothes appropriate for one setting could be acceptable for another. It marks a turning point in the changing role of men’s clothes, from advertising social position to focussing on utility. As men’s fashion evolved in the latter part of the twentieth century, it was marked by a trend towards comfort and affordability. At the same time, the markers which helped to define specific subcultural groupings —mods, skinheads, hippies etc— in part became established within mainstream fashion, so that they were no longer solely identifiable with their originators. Although there are still some fairly strict social rules governing male attire in certain situations, these are becoming less and less rigid as younger men, quite rightly, question the value of dressing like their fathers or grandfathers.
The final chapter examines more recent developments, and highlights the globalisation which has subsumed cultural features from all over the world into the design of men’s clothing, so that it is no longer possible to talk about fashion being identifiable with place or social identity. As with many other aspects of our culture, we have for centuries absorbed ideas and practices from those with whom we have interacted, so that ‘Englishness’ is almost impossible to accurately or adequately define, especially with reference to the clothes that men wear. We are a multicultural society, and contemporary men’s fashion reflects that journey. The history of this development is clearly of importance, and this book is an admirable selection of some —but clearly not all—of the issues which make up that history. --Paul Flux