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Look Sharp: Dressing Like a Gentleman and Gender in 1870s London

For this chapter, please read the introduction to "The Gentleman's Guide to Dressing with Economy."

Published onDec 01, 2022
Look Sharp: Dressing Like a Gentleman and Gender in 1870s London

Over the centuries, we have witnessed many iterations of fashion, as suits change form and dress hems rise and fall. This pamphlet is titled “The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing with Economy,” written by an anonymous author in 1876 London. In my chapter, I’m hoping to highlight the introduction of the pamphlet through the lens of gender.

Fashion over Function

Before giving a single piece of advice, the author clarifies that this is not a guide prioritizing aesthetics in fashion; rather, he plans on offering fashion wisdom based on practicality, utility, and warmth.1 It’s important to note that this book was written in 1876, in the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Men would want to choose good-quality, utilitarian clothes that would work in conjunction with their careers.

Balling on a Budget

One of the important points repeated throughout the chapter is that the author intends to teach readers to dress with economy, along with dressing like a gentleman.2 Even with women entering the workforce and making money, men would likely prioritize their spending money to choose fairly-priced clothing. London, as the capital of England, was the center of industry and it was likely that good-quality clothing was on the pricier side.

How NOT to Dress Like a Gentleman: A Thrilling Guide

Our lovely author has some wisdom on how to not dress. He highlights a list of men by nicknames, and calls out exactly what makes their outfit ungentlemanly.

The Cad

His first example is The Cad. Outside of clothing, the Cad exists rather freely. However, the author believes that the Cad’s sense of fashion is so horrendously ugly that it makes the surrounding environment just as unsightly. Important articles of clothing that the Cad seems to wear include a shiny black frock coat, buttoned poorly, and uneven black pants.3 He also may don clothes of “startling” hues.4 The author implies that any type of bright, vibrant color is “ungentlemanly” and by extension, not manly or masculine.

The Snob

The Snob’s fashion is generally dramatic, modeled after performers in music halls. The clothes are elaborately cut with novel designs, such as a “slap-bang” coat buttoned in an unorthodox manner.5 The author looks down upon these men who dress in dramatic, theatrical manners, almost declaring their masculinity and male identity as null.

The Swells

We have two types of people in this subcategory. The swell proper dresses well and succeeds. His attire is perfect to the point of being uncanny, and he seems like he was made for his clothes (rather than them being made for him). He doesn’t wear his clothes with ease: he is constantly concerned about messing them up. Finally, he poses quite a bit.6 It’s important to contrast the perfection of the swell proper with the expectations of women in fashion. In fashion and society at large, women are expected to be perfectly dressed, in good clothes with their hair (and sometimes face depending on the era) done up as well. If any of these three facets are done improperly, the women as a whole is degraded and loses value in society. Long story short, women must look like dolls in order to be treated normally and accepted. On the other hand, the mannequin-esque perfection of the swell proper is uncanny and uncomfortable to a point. This level of perfection is held to different levels: women must look absolutely perfect, but men shouldn’t since they would look strange.

On the other side, we have the pretentious swell who tries to dress well and fails.7

So How Does a Gentleman Dress?

The author highlights an absence of loudness in color and style. He describes it as an art that is often innate.8 It’s interesting, as dressing well is an “art” for men but an obligation for women. The lack of color and minimal “loudness” also implies that anything outside of this quandary is not “gentlemanly” or manly. Historically, we can also acknowledge that loud, bright, and eccentric fashions seem to be associated with gay men (whether this association is true or false). The author also states that gentlemanly fashion can be found anywhere.9

Up in the Clubs (but not the party type)

The author introduces himself as “A Lounger in the Clubs” as a pseudonym. The clubs seem to be gathering places for men of higher status to mingle, and sometimes are based in various topics such as academics. The most important are the Old Man Club and the Minerva Club.

The Old Man Club

One of the immediate things that the author points out about the Old Man Club is that they have given up the pomp and vanity of their younger eras of fashion, and prioritize neatness and precision from head to toe, almost in a militaristic fashion.10 The way the author describes these men puts them at the peak of masculinity: they’re clean, neat, and their fashion carries respectability. These men do the bare minimum with their fashion and receive respect, in contrast to all that women have to do visuals-wise to gain any similar respect.

The Minerva Club

The Minerva Club, as the name suggests, focuses more on academics than fashion.11 The author speaks of them in a manner that isn’t flattering, but isn’t necessarily disdainful.

The Church and the Military

Our author ponders the garb of clergymen, noting that they wear black (which is associated with Satan). He feels that they should don clothes in white and lighter colors, more complementary to their calling and closer to the “angels” they preach about.12 This statement contrasts with his previous ideals of gentlemanly fashion, as white tends to be a more noticeable color and he advises men to wear colors and fashions that fly under the radar. Historically, white has also been reserved for virgin women (white wedding dresses are the main example here) so the author preferring the white garb sets a double standard for what is acceptable in fashion in the eyes of gender.

Officers in the military represent the height of masculinity in their fashion, according to the author, in their uniform. Officers can dress well because they have many different facilities supporting their fashion: good tailors and laundresses.13 Their military-enforced precision and neatness pull together a clean man worthy of praise.

Primary Source Document, “The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing”

Works Cited

A Lounger at the Clubs. “The Gentleman’s Art of Dressing with Economy.” London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1876. Defining Gender - Adam Matthew Digital. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

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