Do you know your dandies from your petit-maîtres? Could you tell a coxcomb from a Regency buck, a swell or a fop? As Peter McNeil’s Pretty Gentlemen efficiently illustrates, masculinity was a muddled business in 18th-century Britain. It masqueraded in different guises, literally: in costume, in print culture and on the stage. McNeil narrows in on the ‘Macaroni men’, those dedicated followers of fashion, deliciously lampooned in literature and yet central to the social, sexual and cultural history of Britain from 1760 to 1780. This, at least, is McNeil’s theory, and the impressive array of sources he marshals in this book goes some way towards making the case for their significance in the period.
The Macaroni, he explains, were the fashion eccentrics of the 18th century, marked by their distinctive sartorial preferences: heeled shoes, black satin bows in their hair, fitted jackets, tiny tricorns, elaborate wigs and eyeglasses. They were too loosely organised to constitute a subculture, but from the composite account that McNeil puts together, it is clear that the Macaroni could be as outré as punks once were and as affected as hipsters still are.
For a period of around twenty years, their style seeped into every aspect of public life. Their image was reproduced in stylish portraits and comic prints; their look was emulated by the leisurely classes and roundly mocked by most others. McNeil helpfully describes their identifying characteristics and then determinedly spots them everywhere – from Julius Soubise, a freed slave petted by the Duchess of Queensberry, and Charles James Fox, that most eminent British statesman, to Richard Cosway, the society portraitist, and Joseph Banks, the butterfly-catching botanist who sailed the South Seas.
But the Macaroni man is also, McNeil suggests, ‘slippery like the pasta that his name connotes’. The common explanation for their curious name is that it derived from their fondness for that very dish, typical of their cosmopolitan tastes. The first wave of young Macaroni, returning from their grand tours, probably did bring home a taste for Italian cuisine. It’s likely that they also brought home a penchant for French fashion, particularly slim-fit suits, known as the habit à la française. But, as McNeil points out, since a ban was temporarily placed on the importation of French silks in 1766 and they were later excluded from the Anglo-French free-trade treaty of 1786, the Macaroni men ‘embodied a tension in English society between native interests, manufactures and prerogatives, and a cosmopolitan outlook that privileged travel, urbanity and access to outside ideas’. Their affection for Continental style could seem disloyal in a Francophobic climate.
Interestingly, McNeil notes that the Macaroni name probably also owes something to ‘macaronic’ verse, a chaotic pastiche form, often featuring a jumble of bilingual puns and vernacular words given Latinate endings, itself betraying a kind of wildly unbounded Europeanness. Whatever the origins of their name, it is clear that the Macaroni were more than simply fashion plates. They performed an identity, proudly displaying a hotchpotch medley of influences, drawing freely from Continental culture and even borrowing Oriental trends. They were, McNeil suggests persuasively, a living embodiment of cosmopolitanism in an age of anxious nationalism. And so it makes sense to locate them in the tradition of carnival, burlesque and carousing, a gleefully festive and subversive upending of received attitudes, manners and hierarchies.
This argument makes most sense in terms of the Macaroni man’s ambiguous relationship to conventions of gender and sexuality. McNeil’s detailed account of Macaroni trends – large floral corsages, chatelaines or hanging watches, finely turned canes, decorative snuff boxes, the use of cosmetics, face whiteners, rouge, breath fresheners, even preferred drinks (asses’ milk!) – suggests a profound challenge to ideas of patrician or military masculinity. Trawling through archives of prints and portraits, McNeil assembles a remarkable vision of the Macaroni: canes dangling insouciantly from wrists, toweringly tall toupees dressed with pomade and powder, arresting colours – ‘pea-green, pink, red and deep orange, garnished with a great deal of gilt’. We are accustomed to critiquing the male gaze that is habitually turned to scrutinise female bodies, but here the Macaroni is such a staggering spectacle that we might reflect on the idea of a male gaze powerfully scrutinising the male form too.
Crucially, in McNeil’s account, the Macaroni is an indeterminate personality, not fixed in gender or sexuality. It isn’t obvious that the apparently effete figure of the Macaroni automatically signalled homosexuality, but it is clear that their uniform, habits and culture provided a different and widely disseminated form of masculinity. The Macaroni presented an alternative model of social conduct, concerned with manners and deportment, keen to make visible the consumption of luxury goods and to engage in acts of self-care rather than displays of machismo and swaggering swordsmanship.
But there is a palpable cruelty, too, in the more contemptuous satirisations of the Macaroni. They betray what we might call, in modern terms, a barely concealed homophobia, even a barbed transphobia. In ‘The Macaroni Jester and Pantheon of Wit’, a collection of apparent ‘witticisms and bon mots’ from 1773, ran the following mirthless rhyme:
Is it a man? ’Tis hard to say –
A woman then? – A moment pray –
So doubtful is the thing, that no man
McNeil’s is an abstemious and conscientious book, diligently compiled from primary sources. It sticks close to the history rather than straying into polemical terrain. In doing so, it allows the archive to illustrate quite how unstable the category of masculinity has always been. It records the consternation that arises at crucial moments in the formation of distinct gender binaries. Reflecting on the present, it is hard not to think that we might be witnessing similar anxieties today as those binaries begin to fall apart once more.