Modern Menswear Tradition: When Did Black and White Become the Formal Standard?

When did black and white become the modern menswear tradition for formal wear? In this series, we’ll continue our discussion on how masculinity changed pre and post Victorian era. What’s most interesting is how this manhood revolution changed menswear. We’ll discuss how manliness ideals that originated with the Puritans, the French Revolution, and the rise of the working class changed  modern menswear tradition today.

modern menswear tradition

When was the last time you equated wigs, makeup, and leggings with manliness? These were common menswear elements for aristocratic men up until the end of the eighteenth century. Have you ever used the expression “big wig”? It referred to the wealthy men who could afford the poofy peruke, or wig. But with all its excesses, the big wigs became objects of disgust for the Puritans, the fighters of the French Revolution, and the future working class heroes.

Puritan Influence

You may or may not be aware of the Puritan influence on modern America. Democracy, education, and work ethic are just a few of the influences. Less discussed are the Puritan manhood ideals that continue to affect the scope of Western masculinity, including modern menswear tradition.

Today, the standard for modern menswear tradition is black and white or dark for formal wear, including evening semi-formal (solemn colors of the Puritans). It’s been that way for more than a century. The once over-the-top and colorful men’s fop fashion gave way to a more somber style in the late 19th century. As The Masculine Century discusses, “the new puritan middle class imposed not only the dreary male fashions, the black monkish uniform of the nineteenth century, but also a new dullness and inhibition in behavior.”

The British origins of the black and white tradition began with civil wars and the trial and execution of Charles I. England, Ireland, and Scotland established a republic known as the Commonwealth government. Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, “clothes legally had to be plain and either white or black for Puritan religious reasons.” After Cromwell died, the British monarchy was restored with Charles II. The new monarchy was more conservative in nature. “Charles standardized court dress…Men’s clothing had to consist of a coat, vest, neckwear, and, at the time, short pants and stockings. The modern suit was born.” The backlash and fashion political statements against the wealthy aristocrats were solidified…by the new aristocrats.

The French Revolution

While the pendulum swing seen in men’s fashion during the Victorian period may seem dramatic, “the modern lounge suit’s derivation is visible in the outline of the brightly coloured, elaborately crafted royal court dress of the 17th century (suit, wig, knee breeches), which was shed because of the French Revolution.” Much like the British social upheaval, the French monarchy was overthrown and a new republic was established. People began to dress down to escape beheading by the guillotine, an execution device made popular during the revolution.

But not all men’s fashion disappeared. What we know as the metrosexual today might be the modern day version of the French Revolution dandy. A dandy is “a man who gives exaggerated attention to personal appearance.” Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle satirically wrote, “As others dress to live, he lives to dress.” Dandyism arose during the revolution, and while the historical dandy was also concerned with appearance, “dandyism can be seen as a political protest…” These were the young men who fought on the battle fronts and also for social change. But even they would soon become despised by the eventual rise of the blue collar workers from the Industrial Revolution.

The Working Class Man

Modern menswear tradition has some origins in the most unlikely of places. The Industrial Revolution had significant impact on menswear. “The working class man was responsible for the greatest male fashion advance of the last two hundred years: trousers. Men prior to the Industrial Revolution wore stockings with short pants. However, working with the new machines made wearing stockings unsafe and costly, as they would not protect one’s shins.” Menswear became more practical.

The Men’s Dress Reform Party formed in 1929 and solidified what was called “The Great Masculine Renunciation.” As a result of the rise of feminism and a perceived decrease in manliness, men “abandoned their claim to be considered beautiful” and “henceforth aimed at only being useful.” Here we come full circle. Ideology influenced menswear, but the Men’s Dress Reform Party recognized menswear can also influence men’s health and hygiene. Our next article will discuss how the personality and behavior of men changed during the Victoria era and post era as well.

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