Men preening themselves like peacocks is nothing new. Examples of extravagant clothes and face painting can be found in ancient Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. I’m going to concentrate on Europe and its influence into the modern era. During the Dark Ages (5th – 10th century) the Roman Catholic Church proved the most influential patron of the arts, commissioning skilled artisans to produce works based on Biblical subjects, most of whom appeared angelic with bright faces and halos; the light of God shining from within. A pale complexion became associated with good and purity.
The Renaissance (14th – 17th century) brought Europe from the instability that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. The wealthy looked back wistfully at an idealized Greece and Rome. Artists recognised a lucrative market and painted scenes of imagined Greek and Roman idylls, and copied their sculpture. The complexions of the characters portrayed in the artwork were perfect. The statues were carved of flawless white marble, with little body hair. This semblance became the paradigm and has remained in the Western conscience ever since and influenced others. The conversion of entire nations to protestant religions led to a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and anything associated with it in regards to grandeur and excesses, resulting in austere life-styles and plain devoted masses, causing some European royal families to act in kind. The Baroque era (17th – 18th century) which did show flaws on the complexions of subjects did not influence the personal grooming habits of the elite, but did dominate architecture, art, and music. By the 1600s wealthy men and women were using face powders to achieve pale complexions, appearing untouched by the sun, never needing to go outside and labour, and they applied rouge for rosy cheeks to indicate good health. Accentuating the eyes had been practised continuously for thousands of years. Note: Only a very small percentage of the population used make-up; the vast majority of people were lower class, common, and poor.
Without getting into the complications of the religious reformations, it may be stated that France emerged as a the leading nation of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Paris the most influential in regards to fashion, even though the Parisians were emulating much of what they saw coming out of Italy. The French aristocracy were fabulously wealthy and set trends among the royal families of European countries. Stylish gentlemen embraced cosmetics during the 1700s to create (what they thought) was an attractive look in candlelight, copying actors who had begun performing indoors. When members of the British peerage travelled on grand tours of Europe they discovered the styles of Italy, and by the 1700s referred to anything remotely flamboyant as macaroni, in reference to a popular Italian pasta meal. The macaroni fashion became the peak of male cosmetic use, with huge wigs, extremely expensive silk wardrobes, high-heel footwear, and the heavy use of make-up.
Wealthy European men were more inclined to be peacocks throughout the centuries, dressing just as extravagantly as the women. Mercers and tailors encouraged it, as it was good for business. We look back now and deem the fashions of the 1700s as feminine, but at the time the gentlemen considered themselves stylish, urbane, cultured, sophisticated womanisers. The macaronis were the “over-the-top” male fashion slaves, who took somewhat tasteful styles to outrageous extremes. They were mocked simply for their poor taste, just as ladies who wore ridiculously large crinolines in the 1850s suffered similar ridicule in magazines and newspapers. And the way women who wear six inch high heels raise eyebrows today. Whenever fashion goes to extremes, it is open to harsh judgement.
The French Revolution (1789 – 1799) crushed their aristocracy, and everything about them was vilified by the masses. At first, the elite of other European countries clung to the established fashions, but as the French Republic grew stronger and began to threaten their neighbours, there was an interesting reaction. The aristocrats in other countries feared that the poor might rise up against them, causing many of the wealthy to dress as commoners, to appear more like everyday people. And there was also a rejection of anything that could remotely be perceived as French, the enemy, so the make-up (and wigs) were discarded because they were associated to remnants of Parisian fashion. Fashion alters roughly every ten years or so anyway, but this was a dramatic shift throughout most of Europe.
Wealthy men were still fastidious in their appearance, but in different styles, and in Britain were known as dandies. They primped and preened, spent outrageous amounts on their wardrobes, but donned more practical clothing, blending better with the commoners. How much make-up they wore is not known. Records show that they did powder, indicating that some of them applied products to lighten and smooth their complexions, and many men wore pastes for medical reasons, to hide acne or smallpox scars. At the same time, the obvious use of make-up by women fell out of fashion as vulgar and sinful. Dandy fashion appeared very much like common clothes and military uniforms, but crafted of the finest silks and wools, tailored to fit like a second skin, and included some extra frills. Many men wore corsets (sometimes for medical reasons like hernias), but dandies wore them to achieve svelte and broad-shouldered silhouettes.
George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (1778 – 1840) certainly embraced the dandy style, while he could afford it. He had served in the British cavalry, so knew something of the need for somewhat practical clothing, and it was through his military service he made friends with Prince George (1762 – 1830 ), the future King George IV. As cronies, they dressed similarly, and Prince George influenced society as a whole. Prince George, who was a fat and useless man, wanted to seem an Adonis to the British people, and he did his best to emulate the military heroes of the day, which required wearing uniforms and practical clothes.
The accepted belief is that dandy fashion was a reaction and rejection of macaroni fashion, but I feel it was also a normal shift, and there was also a direct connection to the French Revolution, the growth of a strong French Republic, and the resulting Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815). This explains why cosmetics were never accepted by the British male again. The British Industrial Revolution and exploitation of their colonies facilitated the defeat of Napoleon, and created the middle-classes. After the Napoleonic Wars, Britain took on the mantle of international police (Pax Britannica), spreading their Empire around the world, with soldiers, adventurers, merchants, entrepreneurs, and missionaries, none of whom had time for make-up or primping; survival, practicality, and efficiency were their concerns. Indeed, they didn’t shave, and facial hair became fashionable, and conformed to the new manly paragon. Britain fought little wars around the globe, resulting in a constant stream of rugged military heroes for the masses to adulate, and was accepted as how a man should be throughout the Empire and other nations. With the growing British middle-class of the mid 1800s, sport became popular, athletes enjoying celebrity status, and these men were usually big brawny fellows, often with beards. Of interest, while the British male had been put on a national fashion trend, by the 1830s the British female was once again influenced by Parisian styles.