BORN IN 1775, DYING IN 1817, Jane Austen lived through tumultuous times, as we all know. Her lifetime saw the American and French Revolutions, the Irish Rebellion, the Regency Crisis, the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars. And of course, there was also the Romantic movement in literature, the Industrial Revolution, Britain's imperial expansion, and the intractable questions of emancipation and women's rights. Much critical work has been done on how these upheavals, wars, and revolutions, whether political or social, shaped Austen's life and affected her writing, and I think it's pretty safe to say by now that Austen is no longer seen as the spinster aunt oblivious to the radical transformations going on around her--the image that haunted Austen criticism until the 1980s.
As important as these revolutions are to Austen's writing and to modern subjectivity, I wish to discuss here another revolution entirely that took place during Austen's life, one that effected almost as much long-lasting change as, say, the American Revolution, and that has as much relevance to a true understanding of Austen's work as any of the cataclysms of the Romantic era. We do not talk about this revolution in relation to Austen's work, however, because it is hidden in the corners of her novels, the way the Napoleonic Wars are. It's called, fascinatingly enough, the Great Masculine Renunciation, and involves men's fashion, of all things. While the Terror of the French Revolution was bloodying La Place de la Concorde, while the Napoleonic Wars were destroying the European countryside, an Englishman called George Bryan Brummell was changing the way men dressed. Gone were the scarlets and purples, satins and velvets, lace and embroidery of conspicuous consumption that men wore in the middle of the eighteenth century. Romantic-era men wore instead dark blue or black wool coats, stiffly starched, blindingly white shirts, and skin-tight, skin-colored pantaloons--inconspicuous consumption, in fact. Brummell is famous for saying that "If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well-dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable."
But this Great Masculine Renunciation entailed more than Romantic-era men suddenly realizing that dark blue wool and starched shirts were more masculine than red velvet and pantaloons. Indeed, the ideological work that went into making that realization a reality demonstrates the radical transformation that representations of and assumptions about masculinity experienced in the Romantic era. I argue, in fact, that the total transformation in men's fashions in the Regency era was an outward manifestation of a similar renunciation in men's ability to express their emotions. This emotional change was of particular concern to female authors of novels in which a man and a woman had to fall in love with and express their love to each other--female authors of which Jane Austen was one of the earliest.
What I wish to stress here is something that I think literary critics and social historians sometimes seem to forget--that everything in society is interconnected; interdependent, even. Fashion history, portrait techniques, and literary movements are all simultaneous products of the same society, cause and effect of each other. My question is, what does it reveal about Romantic-era literary representations of masculinity that we now view red velvet and pantaloons as slightly effeminate and would much rather encounter the enigmatic but extremely well-dressed man like Mr. Darcy, (1) or the tuxedoed James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or any character portrayed by Cary Grant?
As an example of what I am trying to get at, I wish to compare two paintings that depict two eras of masculine fashion and exemplify the competing assumptions about masculine representation. The first is a portrait of George Lucy, by Pompeo Batoni, painted in 1758 when Lucy was on his Grand Tour. In this portrait, we can see that mid-eighteenth-century masculine fashion is all about conspicuous consumption: heavy gold embroidery weighs down Lucy's waistcoat and outer coat; his blue velvet coat is cut away to reveal the glory of the embroidery of the waistcoat; there is expensive lace at his wrists and throat. …