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Fashion Evolved

By Meagan Russell
In Center Block
Sep 7th, 2022
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article by Guy Miller

One of my major hobbies is living history- recreating how people lived and worked in the past for present day people to see and to learn.  Although I have and still can portray characters in any general time period over almost 300 years of history, the majority of my living history for the past 20 years has been 18th century military and civilian portrayals.  

Some years ago I was at one of my regular annual events talking to one of my friends when he referred to the two of us as “metrosexuals.”  

“Say what?”  At the time I had never heard of that word. My friend kind of chuckled and said “It means we are masculine men who can go to the fabric sutler’s tent and be very choosy about the fiber content, texture and color of various fabrics and can also have a discussion about the appropriate use of lace trim on our clothing.”

Oh. He was right.  In our living history circle of friends the two of us had the strongest reputation for dressing well and having a variety of clothing to suit our respective needs or desires for the particular day.  In short, yes, I have and continue to do a lot of research about historical clothing, period fabrics and dyes, when and where certain male fashion trends were in use and I have an extensive closet of period clothing, shoes, boots, hats and accouterments for use as I need or desire when I go to an event.

The interesting thing about all this is how male fashion has evolved over the centuries and how things I would not be caught dead wearing today I will happily don for living history purposes and take great pleasure in being seen and photographed.  I love answering questions in great detail about buckles, lace trim, ruffles, covered buttons and the bow tied into my ponytail.

When I first moved to Louisiana I became interested in French Colonial history and began portraying a French Marine of the mid-1700s.  The French Marines were the military assigned to protect the colony, especially at its frontier forts.  After I couple of years I was elected an officer of the Marines and continue a similar kind of portrayal today within the umbrella group of like-minded living historians who participate at events all across the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada.  

Colonial French Marines: wooden or masonry forts, cannons, flintlock muskets, swords and lots of testosterone.  Also fine linen shirts with ruffled cuffs and ruffles or a lace-end linen cravat at the throat, dress hats with a white feather boa around the rim, a coat that has a long pleated “skirt,” fancy gold or silver shoe buckles, a fancy brass and silver plate worn around the neck (called a gorget) and either hair braided or tied with a bow or a powdered wig.  At least all in the previous sentence being appropriate and expected for an officer of the French Marines of the mid-18th century.

Marine officers were chosen from well-respected local men of prominence so they also wore civilian clothing at times.  Embroidered vests were popular among the well-to-do, mostly floral designs.  Very well off men might also have an embroidered coat and maybe even embroidery on the matching breeches.  If you owned embroidered clothing it was expected your shirt would have lace cuffs showing at your wrists and a lace jabot adorning your throat.

Silver-topped Malacca canes were a must for a gentleman and often they were held with a perfumed lace hanky between the hand and the knob.  Or the lace hanky could be attached to a cuff button and left dangling to show beneath the coat cuff and hand.  Colonial times were very odoriferous and a gentleman might want to raise the perfumed hanky to his nose if there was a particularly egregious odor nearby.  

A gentleman was always dressed to at least the level of a vest if not also a coat in the presence of ladies or when out about the town.  For comfort at home a gentleman might remove his coat and don a silk banyan.  A banyan is a robe with a Chinese or other patterns woven into the silk.  A soft silk cap would replace the hat and wig when a banyan was worn.  Of course the gentleman was still wearing shirt, vest, breeches, cravat or jabot and shoes and stockings under the banyan.

Women also had their own versions of elegance and high fashion but in the mid-18th century men who could afford it could be clothed in ways that might seem more effeminate to some people in today’s world.  If you were of that time, however, there is no doubt that a man dressed in the ways I’ve described would be thought of as every bit as manly as a soldier in full battle gear or a rodeo cowboy about to ride a ornery bronco or a bull.

So I guess for those of us who take living history very seriously and want to be as period correct as possible, we men who are historical gentlemen of means might be considered metrosexuals.  There is no doubt that masculine gentlemen of the mid-1700s were metrosexuals even though that word had not yet been invented.