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chapter 7

Inconspicuous Consumption

“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 its ability to define a social and
political elite. And once renunciation became fashionable, it lost its claim
to being masculine opposition to fashion. As William Hazlitt rhetorically
asked in 1821: “Suppose public spirit to become the general principle of
action in the community—how would it show itself? Would it not then
become the fashion, like loyalty, and have its apes and parrots, like loyalty? The man of principle would no longer be distinguished from the
crowd.”1 To regain distinction from its apes and parrots, a greater degree of “public spirit” needed to be shown, furthering this compulsion to
renunciation. It was invidious indistinction that drove men’s clothing
changes. Opposition to luxury and effeminacy promoted, rather than inhibited, fashion change. As a political statement, then, elite men’s disdain
for fashion was itself the motivating dynamic of men’s fashion change.
Writing at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Bernard Mande173

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The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity

ville affronted English political morality by arguing that encouraging
“private vices” rather than “public virtue” would bring greater public
benefits. Mandeville criticized the recently triumphant Whig notion of
the compatibility of manly virtue with economic well-being: only by
encouraging luxury could England’s economy grow—a compellingly
cynical “doctrine of beneficial luxury” that has dominated accounts of
English consumer culture.2 Yet this Veblenite theory of conspicuous consumption cannot account for changes in men’s fashion, since they were
motivated not by Mandevillian private vices but by the invidious pursuit of public virtue. The great masculine renunciation reveals a new
consumer dynamic at work, at least among upper- and middle-class Englishmen: in an “age of mosaic, gold and other trash,”3 when the ability
of elites to maintain social distinction by conspicuous consumption was
no longer guaranteed,4 elite men’s fashion was defined as opposition to
luxury, and thus was driven not by a sociology of conspicuous consumption and invidious distinction (the attempt to keep up with, or
ahead of, the Joneses), but by a dynamic of inconspicuous consumption
and invidious indistinction (the attempt to keep away from, hidden from,
and superior to, the Joneses). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was competition for social distinction—fashion itself—that
motivated the anti-fashion movement of the great masculine renunciation. It was English fashion, under the guise of anti-fashion, that “diffused the taste for plain substantial hats, shoes, and coats, through Europe,” as Emerson observed.5 Despite all their efforts, English gentlemen
were now seen as fashion leaders, standard bearers of European taste.
“This uniformity in externals,” Christian Auguste Gottlieb Goede well
understood, “is not a little effected by the dominion of fashion, which
no where exercise such tyrannic sway.”6
In establishing the “tyrannic sway” of inconspicuous consumption,
then, the great masculine renunciation solved little: in opposing the
tyranny of fashion, it nonetheless failed to remove men from the instabilities, impositions, inauthenticities, and artificialities of fashion. As
Mary Wray observed as early as 1722:
’tis impossible for all to avoid the fashion, for if all avoided it, how could anything be the fashion? And that which all or most agree in, and consent to,
will be necessarily the fashion: so all peoples avoiding the fashion would be
only setting up another fashion.7

Elite understatement was still a fashion statement; inconspicuous consumption still a form of consumption, however inverted or opposed to

Inconspicuous Consumption

175

luxury it may have been. And once renunciation became fashionable, it
lost its social cachet. Identified as a fashion, anti-fashion lost its occult
status, its ability to stand outside and above the world of fashion. Not
only was the “man of principle” indistinguishable from the crowd, he
was equally indistinguishable from the “man of fashion.” Indeed, what
marks the great masculine renunciation is that fops dressed like men of
principle. “The beaux, indeed,” confessed John Corry, “are not altogether so effeminate as they appeared last winter. . . . They have not,
however, divested themselves of that ridiculous severity of look, which
they assume in order to appear men of spirit and consequence.”8 It was
now possible to be both a man of spirit and a complete beau. “Even
Brummell their fop was marked by the severest simplicity in dress,”
Emerson conceded; “even the foremost votaries of fashion rarely display
a sumptuous wardrobe,” Christian Augustus Gottlieb Goede noted.9
Even the dandy had become the sincerest man of principle (figure 29).10
Despite two centuries of sartorial reform, despite the fact that Victorian men dressed little like their Elizabethan counterparts, men still
complained that the man of principle could not be distinguished from the
fops of the fashionable crowd. Indeed, precisely because of the success
of sartorial reform, the modest three-piece suit failed to resolve upperand middle-class men’s anxieties about stabilizing their class and gender
identities. Effeminacy might appear in a three-piece suit. In the new confused mingle mangle of apparel, then, the adoption of “studied plainness” had made it no easier to trust appearances. Indeed, with the great
masculine renunciation it was now even more difficult to distinguish between men of principle and men of fashion. As early as 1711, Lord
Shaftesbury had worried that “true gravity” could be too easily affected:
We can never be too grave, if we can be assur’d we are really what we suppose. And we can never too much honor or revere any thing for grave; if we
are assur’d the thing is grave, as we apprehend it. The main point is to know
always true gravity from the false.11

It was just as easy to affect gravity and plainness as to affect extravagance—perhaps even easier. “There cannot be greater vulgarity than an
affectation of superior simplicity,” grumbled the author of Habits of
Good Society.12 No more than conspicuous consumption, inconspicuous consumption failed to convey “superior example.” “Hence it is, that
what is called gravity in many situations of life deserves so little respect,”
complained John Aiken; “ . . . gravity of demeanor, as opposed to levity,
is merely the dress of a dignified station, and may easily be assumed

176

The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity

Figure 29. Adam Buck, Thomas Hope and his family, 1813. Thomas Hope descended
from a family of bankers whose wealth enabled him to purchase the London mansion
of the countess of Warwick. Interested in architecture, furniture, and clothing design,
Hope had himself and his family portrayed in neo-classical style, his daughter indirectly
reproducing the maternal tasks of her mother while the soberly dressed father stands
partially removed from them. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

along with the robe, the chain, and the peruke, by the most insignificant
tool of office, who has just sense enough to avoid playing the fool out of
season.”13 Gravity could not be trusted to connote virtue, precisely because it was equally a fashion susceptible to affectation. Modest masculinity was no less performative, and no more authentic, than luxury
and effeminacy, since there was little sartorial difference between “studied plainness” and “the frivolous man [who] . . . studies the dress and
not the characters of men.”14 “The difference,” Arthur Freeling asserted,
“between a gentleman and a fop is, that the latter values himself on his

Inconspicuous Consumption

177

dress; the former laughs at, while at the same time he knows he must not
neglect it.”15 In an age of uniformity, the difference was no longer what
one wore, but whether one took one’s clothing seriously. In the end,
then, as the author of Advice to a Young Gentleman well understood,
“modesty is an appearance assumed to gain an object.”16 Despite
defining masculinity in opposition to affectation, appearance, and performativity, then, courtesy manuals (almost by definition) undermined
themselves by teaching how to assume an appearance of masculine modesty. If the “frivolous man” had been condemned for studying dress and
not character, courtesy manuals nonetheless prescribed that “the utmost
care should be exercised to avoid even the appearance of desiring to attract attention,” thus collapsing the distinction between plainness and
frivolity, modesty and affectation.17 Respectable masculinity still needed
to be maintained with “the utmost care,” precisely because “the respectable man is one worthy of regard, literally worth turning back to
look at”—authenticity was still based on manipulating appearances.18
As William Hazlitt warned in a timeless platitude, “first impressions are
often the truest.”19 From the old sartorial regime to the great masculine
renunciation, the same clichés applied.
Since the introduction of the three-piece suit, then, Englishmen may
have renounced sartorial splendor by defining masculine modesty as natural and timeless, but they did not gain independence from “Madame la
Mode,” from the studied artificiality, inauthenticity, and affectation of a
fashion system. In 1850, the three-piece suit certainly was cut of different cloth than the Elizabethan courtier’s doublet and hose (and ruffs and
lace). But Englishmen had not escaped the anxious attention to dress
which they so condemned as the vain pursuit of women. Indeed, as
foreign observers felt firsthand, the compulsion to inconspicuous consumption merely installed an inverted fashion system, one that equally
demanded uniformity. “Although there is not much of studied parade,”
Joshua White testified, “or useless ceremony in the ordinary intercourse
with the English, yet it is necessary to comply with some of their custom,
to shun the appearance of singularity . . . It is, then, almost indispensable for foreigners to adopt the prevailing fashion in dress.”20 Even in
“this simple style of dress,” the English still “show[ed] the tyranny of
their fashions. An Englishman, from early habit, submits to it with the
greatest reverence, and considers every instance of rebellion against it as
absurd. This apparently trivial circumstance is followed by the most important consequences.”21 The “tyranny of their fashions” now instilled
simplicity rather than splendor, even though simplicity was meant to

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The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity

signify independence from the tyranny of fashion. Attempting to create
an image of masculinity compatible with ideals of liberty and property,
the three-piece suit merely reproduced a fashion tyranny in inverted
form. Despite the great masculine renunciation— or indeed, because of
it—English upper- and middle-class men still lived by codes of behavior
that perhaps appeased anxieties about their liberty, but which nonetheless left them always susceptible to the tyranny of fashion. Even in 1833,
after over 150 years of fashion renunciation, Puckler-Muskau could still
observe: “Where fashion speaks, the free Englishman is a slave.”22