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Shannon book reassesses Victorian men's fashion scene

Brent Shannon book coverVisiting English professor Brent Shannon explores how a newly flowering consumer culture during the Victorian era drove the evolution of men’s approach to dress and grooming from an attitude of studied indifference to one of active participation in his recently published book The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914 (Ohio University Press).

At the beginning of this era, Shannon said, men were expected to show little outward interest in their attire and grooming.

“It was known as the ‘great masculine renunciation,’” he said. “Conduct manuals of the time told men they should dress in such a way as to make their dress invisible. No decoration, except perhaps for a pocket watch. When he left the room, people might comment on how impeccably dressed he was, but no one would have any memory specifically of what he was wearing.”

A few decades later, men were, if not the equal of women in fashion acuity, at least in the game.

“By the end of the era, you see the idea that men should be concerned about dress and grooming not only to attract women, but also for professional and social success,” Shannon said.

Driving this change in attitude was an explosion in consumer culture that brought about the emergence of the big city department store. Luring men to its seductive aisles filled with the latest fashions was advertising geared specifically to men that used masculine language, sports figures, and military imagery to appeal to their manliness.

Shannon traces those themes and analyzes their appearance in the novels of George Elliott, Anthony Trollope, H. G. Wells, and others, as well as in etiquette manuals, advertising, and fashion trade publications.

“I wanted to show how these big forces, like mass production, consumer culture, capitalism, and especially the department stores, shaped the way average middleclass men defined and practiced their own masculinity,” Shannon said. “New kinds of costume and behavior were becoming acceptable for them.”

In an epilogue, Shannon relates what was happening in Victorian London to a current trend. “Today’s metrosexuality invites heterosexual males to indulge in activities such as going to salons and spas, having manicures, and using facial creams,” he said. “They are being encouraged to have greater concern over their hair, skin, and body shape.”

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