A cynic, with some justification, might claim that the organizing principle of classic menswear is to signal the maximal amount of wealth to the minimal number of people. Any fool can drape himself in expensive jewels. But jewels can be faked, and the bluntness of such an instrument reveals its intent. It suggests desperation and insecurity, an unwillingness to risk the possibility that anyone in the vicinity be ignorant of the wearer’s riches. Far better to use sartorial dog whistles to communicate status to those informed enough to understand them, without incurring the jealousy and envy of the ignorant masses.
As always, it started with the English. It is tempting to frame the shift away from colorful silk finery and jewels and towards sober dark wool garments in the late 18th century as ascetic movement with the democratic intent of giving everyman the possibility of dressing like a gentleman, in the spirit of this quote. But the shift was not from signaling wealth to signaling modesty. Instead the shift was in who understood the signals.
And these signals remained very expensive. When asked how much it might cost a man to maintain an appropriate wardrobe, Brummell famously replied, “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.” This sum would be about $160,000 in today’s money, at a time when the typical craftsman was making £1 a week. Brummell’s reliance on white shirts and cravats, along with “fine country washing, and plenty of it,” also signaled wealth, at a time when keeping things clean in the sooty London air was an expensive proposition.
Too expensive, indeed, for much of the aristocracy, who were spending and gambling themselves into debt and bankruptcy as the merchant class made fortunes off of the Industrial Revolution. The Reform Act of 1832 redistributed political power to more closely match the changing distribution of economic power.
The aristocracy guarded their social power more jealously. The well-bred used clothing not only to signal affluence, but also their social connections and their free time. All manner of byzantine rules and regulations governed what clothes were correct in which settings. Being appropriately dressed at all times might require changing clothes several times throughout the day, an impossibility for someone with an actual day job. It also required being well-connected enough to know about the new trends, a dynamic familiar to us today. Thus the gentleman eschewed ostentatiously expensive dress in favor of a style that was more exclusive still, as its execution depended on more than riches alone.
Legend has it that the future Edward VII, at some point in his tenure as Prince of Wales, undid his bottom waistcoat button in order to make room for desert at the end of yet another gluttonous feast. Whether to make the Prince less self-conscious of his own corpulence or by rote mimicry of any royal habit, this led to an unbuttoning of waistcoats London-wide. In the interim, anyone seen with their waistcoat entirely buttoned would have their alienation from the royal circle on full display. As with the unzipped fly, the best part of the gag was that the gaffer was the last one to understand what everyone is snickering about. To this day, the buttoning of the bottom button of a waistcoat signals ignorance of proper etiquette in male dress.
I am not so cynical as to see nothing else in tailored menswear than an inside joke that aristocrats have played on industrialists. Nor do I credit the suit with so much power as to suggest, as Hardy Amies did, that wearing one is a necessary and sufficient condition for believing in primogeniture.
Rather, the history of modern menswear began with a group of men who called themselves gentlemen. They at least nominally pledged faith to a code of manners and ethics, some of which was designed to engender harmony and social development within those of their circle, and some of which was designed to exclude those who were not.
Today, as Nik Cohn already claimed, somewhat triumphantly, 40 years ago, there are no gentlemen. Those who go by this term in its circa 1800 meaning do so more in the spirit of Civil War reenactors than alumni of any living institution. But when we wear a suit and tie, we view it with an aesthetic descended from that of the gentleman, with all his breeding, refinement, and discernment.
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