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.