The Victorian Gentleman’s Wardrobe, costume as an exhibition of masculinity

Today Count d’Orsay walked in. I had not seen him for four or five years, Last time he was as gay in his colours as a humming-bird… Today, in compliment to his five more years, he was all in black and brown … Well! That man understood his trade; if it be that of a dandy, nobody can deny that he is a perfect master of it, that he dresses himself with consummate skill! Poor d’Orsay! He was born to have been something better than even the king of dandies.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, Letters and Memorials

The shifting role of men in Victorian society.

The growing industrial landscape of 19th Century Britain heralded new attitudes towards the roles of men and women in their domestic and public lives. The ‘Separate Spheres’ Ideology arose from the creation of the modern workplace and signified a rift between husbands at work and their wives at home.

Concepts of gender, which were arguably more flexible in previous centuries, now became rigid.

One cause of this was the decline of cottage industry, environs where men and women spent the most part of the working week together. Now, women were disallowed from work, relegated to a role of altruistic domestic companion and the social mesh of the male and female world steadily disintegrated.

Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood 1863 by George Elgar Hicks 1824-1914Meanwhile, as the sole breadwinners for the family, working men, saw significantly less involvement in the raising of children and management of their household, consequently finding themselves becoming isolated from their own families.

At the beginning of the Victorian period, the concept of masculinity was recognized as Christian maturity; the success of a man’s family and his mental resolve. While at its close, masculinity was assessed by physical virtue; the success of a man’s career and his ambition.

The expectation of all men in Victorian Britain was full commitment to their working lives, meaning fashionable clothing would become a direct response to the culture of man’s responsibilities at work –

  • The cut of men’s clothing in the 19th century becomes increasingly practical. The introduction of darts revolutionised tailoring in the late 1820s, permitting men’s clothing to ease the restriction of a skin-tight fit without forgoing fashionable silhouettes.
  • The colour palette of male dress was diminished to a limited selection of dark hues; demonstrative colours were socially unacceptable.
  • Articles of clothing became rationalised to further promote conformity. Men’s daywear and eveningwear became homogeonised; coats and jackets became indistinguishable garments; and the traditional cuts of pantaloons and trowsers were hybridised to form modern dress trousers.

In conclusion, masculinity was conveyed through men’s clothing as a statement of the wearer’s purpose in life: to go to work, progress in his vocation, and provide for his family. As women inhabited the domestic sphere, and the femininity of their dress took on qualities of the home; men inhabited the external world, yielding control of their own individuality to achieve conformity in the public sphere.

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