The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“The Great Masculine Renunciation and Its Causes”
from The Psychology of Clothes (1930)

J.C.FLüGEL

For cultural theorists, J. C. Flügel's claim to fame lies in these few pages in which he defines what he means by “the Great Masculine Renunciation.” This apt phrase describes the seemingly sudden transformation of upper-class male fashion from the brilliant styles of the French court to the dour darkness of an English banker. In less than three decades an entirely new regime of masculine appearance was introduced, and what is most remarkable is that it continues unabated. The principle that men should dress in the same dark uniform as other men so as to not call attention to themselves as objects of beauty has not lost its hold. Today the president of the United States wears clothes that are similar to the garments worn by a college senior at his first job interview. That an ordinary scribe should look the same as the most powerful ruler—such a similarity would have been unthinkable in 1760, yet since 1795 it has been the norm. The consistency of this rule of masculinity is remarkable when compared with the many transformations of women's attire over the same period. Men have worn dark three-piece suits to work for roughly two hundred years now, and Flügel put his finger on this astonishing fact.

A number of corrections to Flügel's thesis have been made over the years and many of his assumptions about women's dress have been overturned, but the basic terms of the “Great Masculine Renunciation” bear rereading. At the end of the twentieth century women share in sartorial renunciation; they are free to be as ascetically and darkly attired as men have been all this time. This most recent feminine renunciation is not the first, however: Flügel overlooks that, in the first two decades after the French Revolution (and indeed even a few years before), women's styles were also simplified and made more uniform. Instead of choosing black, women were attired in white, flowing gowns copied after the robes on Greek and Roman statues. This neo-classical feminine look was motivated by the same serious desire to eschew the extravagance of previous baroque and rococo costumes, though

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