The perspective of medieval menswear

Monday, December 7th 2020
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I recently saw a presentation by the cultural historical and writer Benjamin Wild (below), on the history of menswear. The talk covered everything from 1300 to the present day, but it was pre-20th Century that was the most interesting. 

The development of menswear in the past 100 years is covered pretty regularly: the Duke of Windsor, emancipation after WW2, the birth of the designer. Earlier trends are rarely covered in much detail, presumably because they seem less relevant. 

But there is a lot there that’s noteworthy, whether it’s how much our modern clothing is driven by the worship of individualism, or how fleeting our ideas of masculinity are. It can give us context and perspective. 

Here are a few of the points I found most interesting, which run roughly chronologically. The talk itself is not publicly available, unfortunately, but there is plenty more on Wild’s writing on his website here.

Early on, Wild made the point that the history of clothing up until the end of the 19th century was driven by institutions - by the monarchy, and by the church. 

They dictated what was acceptable and what was aspirational. This was one reason clothing didn’t change - alongside the limited means of production. 

This might seem obvious, but it stands in stark contrast to the second half of the twentieth century, where the powers of technology, globalisation and mass media have put the emphasis so much on the individual: what you want, what makes you look good. 

That emphasis on the individual might often be a ruse to convince you to buy something a particular brand is selling, but it’s telling that the idea of personal choice always frames the conversation. It’s worth remembering how much power we have.

Wild’s history began in the medieval period. And here, for hundreds of years, the dominant form of European male dress was the tabard (shown top, left; and above).

The tabard was a T-shaped piece of clothing, with a hole cut for the head, that hung to somewhere around the knees. The only shape came from a belt that could be tied around the waist, and from which tools or bags could be hung. 

You can see why the tabard was so practical, and lasted so long. It provided the basic covering required, was versatile, unisex, and had little requirement for sizing. It was also simple to make - just two pieces of material sewn together. 

In fact, its intuitive nature is probably demonstrated by how similar other garments round the world were - like the kimono, for example. One was a shirt and the other a popover, but otherwise they were a very similar concept. 

I found that section of the talk interesting because I’d never heard a tabard defined before - the only references to it you normally see are as some kind of heraldic layer over armour. 

The next point had wider implications about ostentation, and masculinity. 

For most of this late medieval period, rich people showed they were different from the poor by wearing more of these draped garments, or by dying them or ornamenting them. Apparently shaving the nap on the cloth into different patterns was popular. 

But later on, the nobility started differentiating themselves by adding shape. Tailoring was born. 

You can see this in the contrast between Phillip the Good (centre, in black) and those around him in the painting above. 

While most, such as the the noble and churchman on the left, are still in some kind of loose, long-sleeved tabard, Phillip’s outfit is tailored, with big sleeveheads. These clothes were now being cut close to the body, rather than just cinched, with hook-and-eye fastenings in the back. 

If you look closely, everyone in that painting also looks like they’re wearing Balenciaga Speed sneakers. Actually, these are pointed shoes called Crakows, named for the city in Poland they were supposed to have come from. 

This era of shaped, dramatic clothing and pointy shoes is one which, in the 21st century, we can find quite alien. 

How could it have seemed aspirational, and indeed masculine, to wear a cinched dress, poofy shoulders, and tights?

When we look at better-known images, like the Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII (above) that every English child sees in their history schoolbooks, it’s hard to identify with the clothes or why they were worn. 

But setting them in this longer running context helps - at least for me. 

The extreme of that trend came in France, most famously encapsulated in the Rigaud portrait of Louis XIV (above). 

Here, the King is shown in so much ornamental, flowing cloth that he couldn’t possibly have moved in it, let alone performed royal tasks. And he’s wearing red high heels - which I never noticed before. These were known (derisively) as talons rouges.

This type of clothing set the nobility apart because it showed they didn’t have to do anything for themselves - they had people to do that for them. And indeed, later Louis took to restricting which people were allowed to wear the red heels, making fashion a very explicit form of class signal. 

The reaction against this ostentation came in the 17th century in England - and this is where menswear nerds will be more familiar with the history, as it’s commonly regarded as the birthplace of the suit. 

When Charles II took to the throne, he decreed (on October 7 1666, according to Pepys) that courtiers should get rid of their lace and bows, and wear the new uniform of long jacket, waistcoat and (short, two-piece) trousers. 

As you can see from the image above (that’s Charles on the right), the proportions were very different from a modern suit. But still, it was a step change from the flowing fabric, cinched tabards and bows. It was plain, tailored cloth. 

This is still the age of institutions, and so what the king and courtiers wore, men everywhere aspired to as well. More interestingly, though, that aspiration also reflected the values Charles wanted to project: anti-French and anti-Catholic, prudent and Protestant.

That largely set the tone for the next 250 years. Well into the 20th century, men’s dress was intended to communicate that they were successful, serious people to be valued on their  character and their works. Not their beauty. 

Indeed, as Wild said in his talk, that idea of masculinity as being practical has died hard. Even after the peacock revolution and the flowering of fashion ever since, men are still most comfortable in clothes that are plain, and functional. 

There might be a lot of narcissism around today - begun, perhaps, by the fastidious Beau Brummell (above) - but there is still very little decoration in menswear. We’re a long way from even the fur and gold of Philip the Good.

Wild also talked well about modern trends, but I won’t go into them as they’re so broadly covered. For the moment I think it’s worth remembering, every time we scoff at some fashion trend or runway show, how narrow our ideas of menswear are - and how much of it has come before. 

P.S. In response to this post, a reader sent the image below, from a collection by a Canadian explorer. As he said, it's a particularly funny example of what was considered the height of masculinity