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The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity

The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550–1850

David Kuchta
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 313
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  • Book Info
    The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity
    Book Description:

    In 1666, King Charles II felt it necessary to reform Englishmen's dress by introducing a fashion that developed into the three-piece suit. We learn what inspired this royal revolution in masculine attire--and the reasons for its remarkable longevity--in David Kuchta's engaging and handsomely illustrated account. Between 1550 and 1850, Kuchta says, English upper- and middle-class men understood their authority to be based in part upon the display of masculine character: how they presented themselves in public and demonstrated their masculinity helped define their political legitimacy, moral authority, and economic utility. Much has been written about the ways political culture, religion, and economic theory helped shape ideals and practices of masculinity. Kuchta allows us to see the process working in reverse, in that masculine manners and habits of consumption in a patriarchal society contributed actively to people's understanding of what held England together. Kuchta shows not only how the ideology of modern English masculinity was a self-consciously political and public creation but also how such explicitly political decisions and values became internalized, personalized, and naturalized into everyday manners and habits.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92139-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Conspicuous Constructions
    (pp. 1-16)

    As history records it, October 7, 1666 marks the beginning of the three-piece suit, for it was on this day, according to Samuel Pepys’sDiary, that England’s King Charles II declared “his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”¹ Donned with a mixture of solemnity and fanfare, the vest marked a new beginning to Englishmen’s fashion, ending a long era of doublets and hose. The court diarist John Evelyn witnessed the king “changing...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Old Sartorial Regime, 1550–1688
    (pp. 17-50)

    “There is such a confused mingle mangle of apparel,” lamented Phillip Stubbes in 1583,

    and such preposterous excess thereof, as every one is permitted to flaunt it out, in what apparel he lust himself, or can get by any kind of means. So that it is very hard to know who is noble, who is worshipful, who is a gentleman, who is not: for you shall have those, which are neither of the nobility, gentility, nor yeomanry, no, not yet any magistrate or officer in the commonwealth, go daily in silks, velvets, satins, damasks, taffetas, and such like, notwithstanding that...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Seventeenth-Century Fashion Crisis
    (pp. 51-76)

    Many crises shook seventeenth-century England. Its most politically turbulent century in the modern era saw Civil War, the execution of one king, the establishment of a republic, the restoration of another king, and the expulsion of a third, as various groups undermined the crown’s legitimacy. This political turmoil was mixed with a social crisis, as the rising political voice of country gentry, and the rising economic power of manufacturers, challenged the hegemony of the aristocracy. A religious feud between Puritans and the Church of England continued from the sixteenth century, fueling both the political and social crises. Repeated economic convulsions...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Three-Piece Suit
    (pp. 77-90)

    As we have seen, a cultural crisis shook seventeenth-century England’s political, economic, social, and moral fabric. The meanings of consumption were debated by Whig and Tory, country and court, Puritan and Anglican, mercantilist and bullionist. Through the course of this debate, a new ideology emerged to oppose and undermine the cultural and political authority of the Stuart court. Political critics of court luxury saw conformity to fashion as incompatible with traditional English liberties. Religious critics condemned the idolatry of “soft clothes” and called for the display of modesty. Economic critics promoted the consumption of manly English wool over presumably immoral...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Masculinity in the “Age of Chivalry,” 1688–1832
    (pp. 91-132)

    A century after the Glorious Revolution, in 1790 Edmund Burke reflected on the French Revolution, writing from the perspective of an “Old Whig” defender of the revolution principles of 1688 (figure 13). Like seventeenth-century Whigs, Burke placed manners and morals at the center of his conception of political order, and so bewailed the subversion of aristocratic moral authority by the “New Whigs,” who opposed France’s old regime and aristocratic rule at home. What the Glorious Revolution had established, the French Revolution threatened to tear asunder. It is no wonder, then, that Burke turned to ideas about manners, manliness, and womanliness...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Making of the Self-Made Man, 1750–1850
    (pp. 133-172)

    Three years before passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832 expanded English suffrage to middle-class men, one of its leading advocates, William Cobbett, felt it necessary to give these same men some fashion advice: “Let your dress be as cheap as may be without shabbiness,” he wrote in 1829, warning that no one “with sense in skull will love or respect you on account of your fine or costly clothes.”¹ Cobbett’s nineteenth-century advice should not be surprising. Just as John Evelyn had sought in 1661 to design a male costume that could be useful yet graceful, Cobbett desired a...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Inconspicuous Consumption
    (pp. 173-178)

    “Superior example” is fundamentally an oxymoron: once the example is followed, it is no longer superior. “Superior example” only works if there is a temporal distinction between leaders and followers, a time lapse between superiors setting the example and their inferior emulators. It is the temporal instability within this definition of elite masculinity that gave the great masculine renunciation its central dynamic. Changes in male fashion were driven not by a social dynamic of conspicuous consumption, but by a dynamic of inconspicuous consumption, elite understatement, superior example in manly modesty. Once the example of masculine renunciation was followed, it lost...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 179-252)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-294)
  14. Index
    (pp. 295-300)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-303)