Libérte, Egalité, Elégance: The Politics of Style

An enameled American flag pin mounted on the notched lapel of an inoffensively bland dark-blue suit. That’s the sad snapshot of fashion’s influence in American politics today.  D.net’s house style historian and Washington bureau chief Robert Sacheli casts a fascinated glance at an era when politics and fashion were seen as equally vigorous­—and intertwined—male pursuits. Forget snooze-inducing ties, ‘80s anchorman haircuts, and sleeveless sweaters on would-be presidents (permanently, please). Travel with Sacheli to an era when dressing for political success required a cravat, classical curls, velvets, and a mighty fierce walking stick.

Waterloo may have been the site of Napoleon’s ultimate tumble, but his imperial ambitions suffered a kick in the breeches on a more intimate but equally decisive field of battle: Beau Brummell’s dressing room.

That’s the view of design historian Paula A. Baxter, who sees the duel between British and French men’s styles as a major influence on early 19th-century cultural history. For Baxter, a writer and adjunct professor of humanities at Berkeley College’s White Plains, N.Y., campus, it’s also just one reminder that the confluence of fashion and politics neither began nor ended with the Che Guevara T-shirt — and that it’s a sphere in which dandies have long exerted their elegant influence.

Dandies “have been around since antiquity,” said Baxter in a phone interview, and they’ve been “always acknowledged and appreciated. They were accepted with head-nodding encouragement — ‘Oh, yes, he’s a bit of a dandy’.” For Baxter, the list begins with Julius Caesar and extends through the centuries, encompassing a few intriguingly speculative entries (“Voltaire could have been a bit of a dandy”). For these protodandies, the aristocracies of style and intellect contributed as much to their influence as any political power.

In a former professional incarnation as curator of the Art and Architecture Collection of the New York Public Library, Baxter mined the library’s treasures to mount an exhibition titled “A Rakish History of Men’s Wear” a few years ago. She also explored one of the most tumultuous periods in political and fashion history in “When Rakes Ruled: French Masculine Dress of the Revolutionary Era,” a cover feature in Antiques magazine.

Talking to her about that article’s themes elicited insights on the social impact of men’s fashion, spiced by some beau monde gossip 18th-century style. If Anna Wintour presided over a graduate history seminar, she’d sound a lot like Baxter — though not quite as irreverent.

Dressing for revolution

“I completely got Marie Antoinette,” says Baxter of director Sofia Coppola’s portrait of the queen as a tragic fashionista. The Bourbon aristocracy was “really mindless, and the bitterness that built up to explosion [in the Revolution] had to be something profound. Clothing was a red flag of social and financial inequity, and the whole notion of fashion was a hot-button issue” for a nation whose ruling class was living — and dressing — in quite another world as the rest of the populace.

Paris under Louis XVI provided all the dangerous and sensational ingredients for revolution in both fashion and government. “The real drama of 18th-century life was playing out in Paris,” a city that Baxter finds was a crucible for the modern metropolis in which money, class, celebrity, and politics were driving forces of urban life. It was a magnet for the ambitious: “Political figures from the provinces such as Danton and Saint-Juste came to the capital” to make their mark.

Fashion periodicals emerged here during the last quarter of the 18th century, growing in influence and reach among a sophisticated audience of upper-class and aristocratic readers, particularly men. One of the most influential, Gazette des salons: Journal des dames and les modes, was edited by a defrocked priest, Pierre de La Mésangère. It surveyed men’s and women’s fashions and found rich material for social commentary in a Paris that “was street theatre every day,” says Baxter.

There was much for de La Mésangère (“a very canny man, a quite remarkable person [who] kept a keen eye on everything”) and his fellow fashion scribes to cover, as men’s styles became one of the most visible monitors of social change. The ancien régime’s male costumes were as rigid and codified as its court etiquette: coat, waistcoat, and knee-length breeches were the unvarying elements. As disenchantment with the Bourbons grew by the late 1770s, ruling-class fashion also lost its appeal for aristocrats such as the Petits-Maîtres, or élégants, who turned to what Baxter describes in her article as  “elaborate dress and ambiguously libertine morals” and used fashion-forward British trends in men’s wear as the basis for their ensembles. (A decade or so earlier, London’s Macaronis had shown their well-turned-out backs to the establishment by dressing in exaggerated version of French court fashions.)

Periodicals had “a recoil effect as fashion crossed the Channel between France and England,” says Baxter, and British style — and one style maker in particular — would have a profound influence on how French men dressed in the next decades. Young Parisians took up the tailored lead of their London counterparts, as the more restrained and refined style anglaise, with its allusions to the squire and the sportsman, came to the fore.

Dress became less about broadcasting status though opulent display. Instead, the philosophies of fashion and government shifted to emphasize the importance of the individual. The idea of democracy was on the rise in the tailor shops as well as the political salons of Paris.

Liberating men — and their legs

The Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat was among the many Revolutionary leaders who found aristocratic fashion morally repellent, and his call for a more democratic approach to dress, based on styles appropriated from the working classes, was echoed by activists seeking wider social reforms. Eventually, fashion and freedom would become inextricably intertwined, most powerfully symbolized by a pair of pants.

Baxter pronounces the shift from breeches to trousers as “the most significant development in men’s dress of the 18th century.” She explains, “the Revolutionaries said, ‘we are associating breeches with all of the negative things that the aristocracy has brought to us’” and that their replacement by pants signaled the eclipse of the monarchists’ stranglehold on French life and culture.

Breeches were connected with the formality and decadence of court life. Trousers, with their links to the workingman and the soldier (“Europe was almost permanently at war” during this period, reminds Baxter, and the influence of military regalia on men’s fashion was strong) provided an active and virile model of masculinity.

Trousers also toppled another upper-class male obsession: displaying a shapely calf in breeches. For those born with money but without fashionably developed limbs, notes Baxter, “sawdust, padded stockings, or a tailor’s ingenuity could disguise natural defects.”

In trousers, though, “all kinds of sins are forgiven. [Men could now think] ‘I don’t have to worry about the bloody stockings and if I have a perfect calf’.” Men in trousers could live exactly how nature and the Revolution intended — comfortable, productive, and liberated from the tyranny of both kings and the contours of their own legs.

Dangerous designs

Sans culottes (“without breeches”) migrated from fashion trend to political identity as Maximilian de Robespierre made trousers the hallmark of his Jacobin supporters’ distinctive costumes. During the movement’s ascendancy, the look was “premiered” at a 1792 political rally, modeled by a popular actor whom Baxter describes as “the Sylvester Stallone of his day.” Robespierre, Danton, and other leaders of the Revolution’s new National Convention were savvy about providing red-carpet moments to showcase their political and fashion convictions.

Highly choreographed civic celebrations were concocted to replace religious and royalist festivals, and “you had ways of flashing your clothing to get attention at these events.” Baxter writes of Robespierre (who, for all his egalitarian ideals, still found knee breeches and powdered wigs flattering) making an appearance at a June 1794 civic festival “wearing an extravagant sky blue frock coat and clutching a bouquet of flowers.”

If Revolutionaries could trumpet their politics through fashion, so could loyalists. Monarchist factions such as the jeunesse dorée and the Muscadins flaunted knee breeches and royalist colors like black and green and provocatively adopting, according to Baxter’s account, “more extreme fashion features, such as outrageously large cravats, voluminous scarves, pumps, and tricorne hats.”

“Dress,” says Baxter, “now became part of the politics, part of the danger of the Revolutionary era.” That danger involved physical as well as political risk. The twisted wooden Hercules club was the must-have accessory for 1790s urbanites, for “no well-dressed man dared to walk through the streets of Paris [without one] because you might get into a fight that day.” The heavy club was “a weapon for survival, not just a fashion accessory.”

Who knows if that sky blue coat and bouquet sabotaged his fearsome image, but by late 1794 Robespierre and his sans culottes were clearly last season’s trend. The Directory supplanted the National Convention as the Revolution’s governing body, and the Muscadins were eclipsed by an even more deliberately outrageous fashion pack, the Incroyables. Nothing was too extreme in cut, color, fabric, or decoration for these dandies, whose cravats reached throat-swaddling heights and whose tousled hairstyle, sometimes called the “Titus crop,” gave an exaggerated spin to the crops and curls of classical statuary.

The Revolutionary period also brought what Baxter terms “a redistribution of clothes” to Parisians, as style became one of the perks of the aristocracy claimed by newly democratized and increasingly consumerist citoyens. Although the equivalent of ready-to-wear was yet to emerge, “tailors were willing to make up a coat in the style of [Directory leader] Barras for less moneyed clients.” There were quickly turned-out imitations of the latest coats or waistcoats worn by the beaux of the Directoire balls, and even lower-class buyers could feel fashionable, if a bit belatedly, when they scoured the stock of second-hand clothes merchants for bargains.

Civil unrest redistributed fashion in one particularly direct way. Baxter notes that “lots of men were wearing the Faubourg St. Honoré equivalent of Brooks Brothers” for the first time in their lives when they looted tailors’ shops — and found they liked it.

Beau vs. emperor

The rivalries between the politicians and tailors of France and England remained heated throughout the close of the 1700s, but subsequent spells of more tranquil relations allowed freer exchange between well-dressed men on either side of the Channel. Baxter cites a nine-month period of peace after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 when Londoners “came pell-mell to Paris” to sample the latest fashions. Their own clothing, though, had even more of an influence on the capital city’s young men.

It’s during these early years of the new century that Beau Brummell’s power as an international celebrity of style truly takes hold. “Brummell is significant because he’s a well-dressed man who set a code of dress,” a new masculine uniform that arose out of the anarchy in class, politics, and social mores of the Revolutionary period. Baxter credits Brummell’s greatest impact, as reported through the French fashion press, as “turning the tide to trousers,” promulgating the “really potent idea of legs” among the cross-Channel dandy brotherhood.

Brummell could even outrank an emperor when it came to ruling how men dressed. Napoleon, for whom all the gaudy trappings of empire were art-directed with as much swagger as any Trump casino, wanted to revive breeches as a symbol of his presumptive divine right. Frenchmen, though, were no longer willing to play along with a ruler’s fashion dictates.

Trousers were now a permanent part of a modern man’s wardrobe, and “breeches only retained influence with older men, courtiers, and admirals—men for whom they were part of the uniform.” Soon the only legs regularly clad in breeches would be those belonging to servants, not the gentlemen on whom they attended.

Men in black

The Romantic period, with its cult of the individual, was the ideal backdrop for ascendance of the dandy. That flowering, alas, was brief. “Dandyism came under attack,” says Baxter, as the century progressed. “Previously understood and accepted, [it was] now criticized.” Dandies themselves “came in for serious questioning” from writers such as Carlyle, who pronounced that they “hurt society.” Cultural critics had begun “to ask ‘How dare a man take too much interest in looking good? Something must be not quite right’.” “The Victorian era,” declares Baxter, “has much to answer for.”

Brummell’s simple but beautifully detailed blue-and-white ensembles devolved into something far less elegant—the plain black suit—as the businessman overtook the dandy as arbiter of fashion. Nineteenth-century menswear deliberately foreswore the political as the black suit emerged as the uniform of choice, and for Baxter that’s “the largest political statement of the era.”

“You could no longer tell class by clothing,” nor could you sometimes even tell in which city you were. “You could walk the streets of New York, Amsterdam, Paris, or Milan and all the men looked the same.” From Bowery bum to J.P. Morgan, it all came down to that unadorned black suit: “You could be a newsboy, a street sweeper, or a capitalist, by the end of the 19th century, everybody looks the same.”

In this drab context, men like Wilde and Whistler, for whom dress was an extension of their art, become far more than colorful personalities. Baxter labels them “social rebels” for their provocative individuality.

Power to the dandies

Although no politically focused trendsetters quite as flamboyant as the Incroyables or hard-lined as the sans culottes have grabbed the spotlight for a couple of centuries, “don’t think for a moment that politics in fashion is dead,” says Baxter. As an example, she points to a visit several years ago by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to an ailing Fidel Castro. In an artful congruence of style and ideology (and not a little media savvy), both men chose camera-ready red shirts for their bedside meeting.

Baxter sees clear reflections of the precarious international financial climate in recent male fashion trends. “In the five years since ‘A Rakish History of Men’s Wear’ appeared, the global economic crash has turned gender clothing trends inside out. Men’s wear now possesses the anorexic nerviness that once belonged exclusively to my sex.”

“You need to be a slim and taut man to wear jackets with nipped-in waists and pants with elevated hemlines. Today’s modish man looks like he’s ready to burst out of his clothes. You could say that this design change signals the underlying anxiety of our times.” In short, Thom Browne elbows out the World Bank’s eggheads as a reliable economic prognosticator.

Things turn even darker when Baxter casts a critical eye on the signature looks of the male presidential contenders now hogging our television and laptop screens. “Right now, Barack Obama wins the fashion parade hands down. He’s willowy enough for the current dress mode to flatter him. The Republicans aren’t even trying. If I blink for a moment they all look like they’re refugees from 1950s and 1960s film reels—and I don’t mean this in an approving, retro-chic manner. It seems like Governor Christie of New Jersey is acting as their fashion adviser.”

Though Mr. Obama gets Baxter’s vote as a standout in a generally lousy field, he shouldn’t get too cocky. “Frankly speaking, any photos of the Kennedy brothers or Ronald Reagan show them looking significantly positive in their suits. They wore them with a kind of panache that no one running for office at present can claim.”

Baxter has some unsolicited style advice for the White House team shaping the president’s bid for a second term: play to his strengths. “When dressing casually, the president should choose shirts like Nelson Mandela wears. I advise he opt for Hawaiian shirts as an in-your-eye tribute to his heritage, maybe those tropical Tommy Bahama designs that match the patterns so nicely when buttoned.”

“He should also relax in denim shirts and jeans. His denim look, however, should be more Tom Ford than western. He can look like a 70s community organizer instead of the Marlboro Man. We’ve had enough of that.”

Though politicians may resolutely avoid dressing in anything that throws off even the faintest vibes of being fashionable, to Baxter the widening interpretive spotlight on the significance of men’s style “must mean that the dandy is important. But where is he going now?” Dandyism and “what it can do for men is up for reevaluation, reinterpretation, and reappraisal,” she concludes.

One thing is certain, though. Fashion and politics, as Napoleon can attest, are ultimately ephemeral.

Style—and the dandy—endures.

Image credits:

1)   François Gérard, Jean-Baptist Isabey, Miniaturist, With His Daughter, exhibited at the Salon of 1796

2)  Un Incroyable (detail from Louis-Léopold Boilly, Point de Convention, ca. 1797)

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