Medieval man's riding bootsI was speculating the other day about the drabness of male clothing. At work, they wear plain suits, usually in boring dark colours, with plain shirts and – if they really want to express their individuality and stylish good taste – a nice, subtly elegant tie. At leisure they wear, pretty much universally, plain jeans/trousers and a plain T-shirt or some variation on that theme. Men’s clothes are, generally speaking, really boring. How they suffer.

Twas not ever thus. Back in the olden days, men used to dress up in gorgeous colours and glorious finery. Dressing up was about making a show of your wealth, proving that you could afford to buy clothes that were coloured with expensive dyes or dripping with jewels. As such, since showing off was no doubt just as much a manly endeavour then as it is now, it was positively fabulous to dress up in bright and sumptuous manly clothes.

(See here for some examples.)

Men certainly didn’t wear the same clothes as women (unless they were poor enough to have no choice, that is) because I suspect that it has always been important in patriarchy for men and women to be demarcated by costume. I also suspect, and all the evidence of which I am aware bears this out, that women’s costume has always been more restrictive and less practical than men’s clothing, in order to emphasise and enhance their oppression. Nevertheless, there was certainly a time when men sought to express themselves through flamboyant outfits and wore beautiful clothes and fabulous jewels to show off their wealth.

My theory – which, I confess, I have not troubled to test against any actual historical facts – is this.

In the mid to late 17th century, when England was experiencing both the overthrow and the restoration of the monarchy, there was a real surge in protestant feeling and protestant religion – protesting against, among other things, the catholic church’s obsession with wealth and with the accumulation and display of riches. An important strand was puritanism, protesting against pretty much anything that was fun or pleasurable (which included dressing up in ostentatious finery).

My theory is that in the rough-and-tumble of this revolutionary thinking, this turning away from things of the flesh and from worldly pleasures, the pleasure of dressing up got lumped in with sex, got lumped in with sensuality, got lumped in with idleness and weakness and folly. For good reason – when a man could spend as much on a single pair of shoes as a whole village of peasants would earn in a year* there has to be something wrong in the world.

[* Figures may not be based on actual research.]

My theory goes further. Not only did sartorial pleasure get mixed up with the pleasure of sex, sensuality, and with the sins of weakness, idleness and folly – but the whole jolly lot got mixed up that old chestnut, femininity. After all, if you are a seventeenth century puritan seeking to locate the source of all evil in worldly pleasure, where do you look? Why, to women of course.

When all the fuss had died down and people quietly started returning to worldly vices, men managed to rescue the sensual pleasures of food and drink for themselves, and they certainly didn’t forget lust or covetousness. But they apparently forgot to reclaim their ancient right to dress in pretty clothes.

More fool them. I think it is no coincidence that men who do wear fun clothes are men seeking liberation from their own oppression. The flower power of the 1960s, the bright stripey trousers of hippies at a festival, the outrageous costumes in gay pride parades, and even the small rebellion of a snazzy tie in a grey office – they all reach out for what we women already know. Dressing up is fun. Men should be allowed to do it to!

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