Over the festive period, many of us will have had the pleasure of attending the odd pantomime or watching period dramas on the television. While we can forgive a little artistic licence in the wardrobe departments, there’s a palpable sense that until relatively recently men took great care of their appearance. They would spend time and attention on their look to remain not just stylish but also have a little fun in the process. Somewhere along the line, this attitude has had all its rough edges worn away and the whole idea of looking spiffing has become a source of embarrassment, attracting accusations of vanity.
Take a wander around a fine art gallery and have a look at the collected portraits of aristocrats, royals, entrepreneurs, high-ranking military types and celebrities from the eighteenth century. You won’t find a hint of embarrassment in the extravagant garb. You’ll see feathers, tights, trinkets, jewellery, outrageous coiffures, knee-length boots, make up and clothes of the finest materials imaginable. Jeans, tee shirts and trainers are conspicuous by their absence (granted, partly due to their non-existence). Yet even with all this finery and attitude, men still somehow look masculine and powerful.
Throughout the nineteenth century, clothing was certainly toned down, but men still took pride in their appearance, with breeches, understated tailored suits, expensive hats and impressive facial hair laying down their authority. And even up to the Second World War, no man would consider stepping out of the door without the best clothing available to their budget and appropriate to their standing. We can see films of men filing into factories, farms and coal mines wearing a shirt and tie under a suit jacket. Movie icons like Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin, who played typical guys of their day, were never seen without a suit – except for comedic purposes.
In the 1950s, style itself became more casual, but it remained firmly within the realm of looking good. Quiffs and blue sued shoes didn’t happen by accident; one’s own image was nothing to be sniffed at. The 1960s made men a little smarter; off-the-peg suits became affordable and Carnaby Street became world famous for the technicolour sartorial wonders on offer.
So that brings us up to the 1970s. Suddenly, your mind has probably turned to mush as you contemplate the gaudy pastels and fifty shades of brown that the era triggers. While the hippies and heavy rockers certainly dragged fashion away from the boutique (which is not to say they didn’t take their image very seriously), everyday and professional wear started to deformalise as the class structure became undermined. And frankly, even though the 80s had their dandy moments, men have never really gone back.
Is the time right for guys to lose their self-consciousness about looking good? After all, women have always known about the joy of looking their best. Maybe a browse around a vintage clothing store will provide the eye-opening experience you need. These places aren’t museums; they are emporiums of possibility, waiting to be dived into. Just wait till you of yesteryear greets you in the fitting room mirror – you’ll suddenly appreciate why it’s usually called a changing room.
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