The Great Masculine Renunciation a.k.a. how the colour drained out of men's clothing

17th century French king Louis XIV, who notedly had a penchant for high-heels.

“Hitherto man had vied with woman in the splendour of his garments, woman’s only prerogative lying in décolleté and other forms of erotic display of the actual body; henceforward, to the present day, woman was to enjoy the privilege of being the only possessor of beauty and magnificence, even in the purely sartorial sense.”

J.C. Flügel, “The Psychology of Clothes”, 1930

When looking at the opulent peacocks that were the aristocrats of centuries past, it’s quite obvious that, along the line, something happened that made men’s clothing far more muted, drab and no-nonsense. How did the epitome of masculinity go from a high-heeled man adorned with jewels, donning billowing, silky, colourful fabrics and even a powdery, made-up complexion, to the austere, monochrome and incredibly subdued three-piece suit? This process, known as the Great Masculine Renunciation, was explored by psychoanalyst John Flügel in his book, “The Psychology of Clothes”. It was a revolution in male dress which was prompted in part by other, bloodier revolutions. Ones which have received exponentially better documentation, likely owing to the Renunciation’s proximity to fashion, an arguably “unacademic” topic. But I argue that fashion is one of the best indicators of social, ideological and political change, and for evidence I offer only the most significant transformation of men’s dress in modern times.

Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor in the 17th century

Heeled shoes, bright colours, wigs; none of this was off-limits for men before the Great Masculine Renunciation.

The Great Masculine Renunciation, agreed to have occurred around the end of the eighteenth century, was a movement in which “man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful… [and] henceforth aimed at being only useful”. This included the abandonment of bright colours, loud patterns, high heels, shiny accessories and any other types of ostentatious adornment. For contemporary males, it may be a given that elaborate, extravagant dress has always been merely “a female thing”. But just about any aristocratic portrait before the late 1700s would have to disagree with you there.

Charles II, 17th century English king

A "Macaroni" was a type of man in mid-1700s England who was a dedicated follower of fashion and was no stranger to excess, whether that be in terms of clothing, eating or gambling.

The latter half of the 1700s was a turbulent period for North America and Europe, bringing with it events which caused intense social and political change which were felt long into the next century. One of these being, of course, the French Revolution (1789-1799). It exported new social ideals of meritocracy over inherited privilege, and equality over steep economic disparity. (You may know it as the catchier slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.) As these new ideals permeated society, the decadent dress of the ancien régime fell out of fashion. Not only was it a stark reminder of the over-privileged leaders who had just lost their heads, but it was also impractical in a society which increasingly saw work as a virtue. Whereas before work connected with economic activities had been considered degrading to the upper classes, the Revolution asserted that a man’s most important activities were, in fact, passed in the workshop, the counting-house or the office. These activities required a far more functional uniform than the attire necessitated by a royal court.

Previously, it had been considered that the most important moments of a man's life were passed on the field of battle or in the drawing room. These activities had required a more ostentatious uniform.

 French cartoon c. 19th century, highlighting the new conventions of dress.

Furthermore, the doctrine of brotherhood (Fraternité) meant that garments which – by their very nature – emphasised great wealth were distasteful in the face of changing social tendencies. With the new era bringing the promise of social mobility, there was a need for a greater uniformity of dress. This lack of distinction between classes could better express the common humanity of all men. The solution was to simplify male dress, removing the costly decorations which had clearly separated the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. Hence the decline of drama, decoration and decadence in men’s clothing. Flügel has a point when he says that the Great Masculine Renunciation generally achieved its aim. The fact that male fashion was largely standardised from then on is reflected in contemporary literature. Charlotte Brontë’s observations about the role of black and a reserved appearance in sexual selection appear in her novel Jane Eyre, where Jane – at a party given by Mr Rochester – notes that the collective appearance of the gentlemen in black is very imposing.

A sight that would have been seen at parties throughout the 19th century.

 A photograph from the 20th century showing just how well we've succeeded in standardising men's clothing.

This shift in male sartorial sensibilities is still felt today. For proof, look at the disparity between male and female celebrity fashion on red carpets. Another black/navy suit? Revolutionary. Although… back in the 1800s, it kind of was. Let me tell you about Beau Brummell, father of dandyism and modern men’s style. A man of relatively modest background – particularly in contrast with his associates –, he has been hailed for breaking down the wall between average men and England’s aristocracy. Brummell was a man who was a product of his time: born in 1778, he would have grown up at a time when the ideals of the French and American revolutions (1789-1799; 1775-1783) were being imported to England too. He became a good friend of the Prince Regent (future King George IV) and was able to influence the Prince and his court through his innovative dress and unwillingness to conform to convention. Brummell’s simple yet high-quality, muted yet well-fitting style was probably just as much an economic solution as a political statement. He simply did not have the same resources as the men he surrounded himself with, so he opted for a hand-tailored suit rather than an outfit embellished with jewels. He swapped breeches and stockings for full-length formal trousers, and billowy tunics for the kind of dress shirt modern men would be more familiar with. His idea of accessorising was a tie or cravat rather than a heavy, ruby-laden necklace. Along with other notable “dandies” such as Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Charles Baudelaire, Brummell helped to set a standard when it came to men’s clothing of reserved elegance and a tendency to showcase a man’s physique with good tailoring rather than overshadowing it with mounds of expensive fabric.

Portrait of Beau Brummell

Oscar Wilde, another well-known "dandy"

Though I have given much weight to Flügel’s interpretation of the French Revolution as an important cause, changes in fashion are by no means instantaneous or all-encompassing, and as usual multiple factors would have been at play. The move to more functional clothes which emulated a dutiful, respectable man was likely inspired by the Industrial Revolution too. Spanning the 18th and 19th centuries, it no doubt enhanced the standing of a certain type of self-made man involved in manufacturing. These factory owners and the like were often caricatured as reserved, sombre men, in black from head to foot. No doubt many wanted to emulate this style, maybe not necessarily due to its stylish flair but its prosperous connotations.

A French cartoon from the 1800s which shows us the reserved elegance which took over men's clothing.

So, you know why there was a general change in men’s clothing which started around the turn of the 19th century and permeates through to today. But let’s narrow our focus even more for a moment to look at heeled shoes, which were actually originally worn by men. They came into use in the Middle East due to their suitability for riding; the fighting styles of Persia particularly relied on good horsemanship. When Shah Abbas I sent a diplomatic mission to Europe in 1559, this sparked an interest in all things Persian in Western Europe. Heels were soon adopted by aristocrats who thought it gave them a virile, powerful edge. This form of footwear, which today is thought of as obviously feminine, was originally adopted by women because of a trend to look more masculine. Around the 1630s, women were donning heels, smoking pipes, cutting their hair and wearing masculine hats all in the name of fashion. Heels only fell out of favour with men due to the afore-mentioned shifts in social ideology. Women were not privy to the new belief that all men should be given an education as they were seen as “emotional, sentimental and un-educatable”, so they were left to enjoy aesthetic pleasure as much as they pleased. This is how the high-heel, which once symbolised military might, came to be associated with female narcissism, frivolity and promiscuity.

Notice the red heels, which have had connotations of glamour and wealth long before Christian Louboutin's crimson soles became a favourite amongst celebrities. In fact, in the 1670s, King Louis XIV of France issued an edict that only members of his court were allowed to wear red heels. This gave them the ultimate association of power, as a glance at someone's heels could immediately tell you whether they were in favour with the king.

Flügel found contemporary European clothing seemed to be out of keeping with what normally occurs in nature, as well as in evidence of “primitive peoples”. In these cases the male “is more ornamental than the female”. He argues this is because there was a profound reorganisation of masculinity during the political and economic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is interesting that now, attempts at refilling the male wardrobe with colour, patterns and extravagance are often tinged by labels such as “fruity” (or worse F-words). It is difficult to go back, since dark and drab has been the norm for centuries (at least in the Western world) whilst vibrance and decoration has long been associated with women. Generations of men have been influenced by these constraints. But, as we’ve seen, masculinity has been re-defined before, and it can be re-defined again.

A classroom of boys from the previous century looking almost identical to their counterparts today (given that it is a school which requires uniforms, such as in Britain). The short expiry date of trends may give the impression that fashion is incredibly fast-moving, but in the grand scheme of things clothing norms evolve slowly.

Words by Anastasia Vartanian


  1. Ultimately, Couples Therapists act as allies, supporting couples in creating a more harmonious, fulfilling, and enduring relationship.

  2. so illuminating omg


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