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The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life in 1860-1914.

The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life in 1860-1914. By Christopher Breward (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999. ix plus 278pp. $79.95/cloth $24.95/paperback).

Unfortunately the study of masculinities, fashion and urban culture is rarely addressed in the same work since the dominant wisdom has long held that consumption was a feminine enterprise and that pre-War British and American men were reluctant consumers at best. Thus, Christopher Breward's new book on the subject is a welcome contribution to the study of how gender and consumerism inflect one another, and to the process whereby pre-War British men were transformed into a powerful consumer market.

Breward posits that late-Victorian male clothing and fashion provided a creative space for masculine contestation and innovation and that male fashion consumption positioned consuming men at the forefront of the modernization process that Britain was undergoing at the dawn of the twentieth century. This is argued to refute the idea that late-Victorian Englishmen subscribed to a 'Great Masculine Renunciation' of fashion and style as numerous historians have suggested. [1]

The first section of the book examines the "colour, cut and texture [of clothing] ... available to middle-class and aristocratic consumers" with an eye toward demonstrating that the "elaboration" and "elegance" of pre-Victorian male beauty survived the austerity of Victorian moral rhetoric (p. 25). To make this case, Breward combs the material evidence of male fashionability found in popular novels, shop catalogues, trade directories, diaries and photographs. The retail fashion plates and advertisements he reproduces graphically demonstrate the wide variety of elegant clothing and fashion accessories available to Victorian men, and his examination of how men's clothing was discussed in popular novels, men's periodicals, and diaries suggests how important looking fashionable was for Victorian Englishmen.

The second section of the book examines how the fashion interests of the masher, swell, suburban father and the suburban playboy-bachelor transformed these men into a powerful consuming constituency. Using street photographs, diaries, and vaudeville reminiscences and songs, Breward shows how much time and energy these men put into buying and showing off their new (and used) clothing. Particularly interesting is the passage that examines how various Manchester and London working-class gangs used fashion to establish a threatening mystique and distinguish themselves from other gangs (pp. 212-15). Similarly, working class mashers and swells went on perambulating "monkey walks" in which they competed for female attention by showing off their newest fashion purchases (pp. 208-11). Equally interesting is the examination of how many men's magazines ran articles on which leisure, sports and fashion goods to buy, and where and how to shop for them (pp. 178-82).

A Short Critique

Because Breward believes that recent social history has too strongly "prioritis[ed] the popular at the expense of the elite" (p. 72) he tries to reverse this trend by purposely focusing most of his attention on middle-class and aristocratic men. Unfortunately this does not so much correct this 'oversight' as it substitutes one problem for another; Breward spends only 23 pages on working class male fashion and consumption and the rest of the book on genteel fashion and consumption. This leads Breward to overestimate the degree to which genteel Victorian men "contested" the bounds of their gender and class. Compared with the loudness and subversiveness of working-class male fashion (i.e., bright greens, gaudy checks, tight bell bottoms and flared pants, etc.), genteel male fashion begins to look nearly as somber, reserved, and regimented as the proponents of the "Great Male Renunciation" have always insisted. Thus it would have strengthened the author's case to pay more attention to the many ways in which work ing-class fashion and style contested social boundaries and redefined social identities and stereotypes in urban culture.

Another minor problem is that Breward occasionally makes historiographical and historical claims that are insufficiently substantiated or innaccurate. For example, after citing only a single scholar Breward claims that:

"[m]uch recent work on the ideological construction of modern masculinity positions the emergence of the homosexual as a recognisable type during the last quarter of the nineteenth century as a key event in the marshalling of normative male characteristics (p. 246). [2]

This is both unsubstantiated and inaccurate because the current Anglo-American literature on the history of masculinities indicates that male homophobia did not emerge among the middle classes until the early twentieth century, and among the working class until the 1930s (largely because the lay public did not begin to use the term "homosexual" until these dates). [3] Consequently, most of the literature links the formation of modern normative Anglo-American masculinity not to homophobia but to the "crisis of masculinity" which resulted when middle-class men were transformed from small owners into salaried white-collar workers by the growing corporate-industrial economy. [4]

Another intriguing but largely unsubstantiated claim that Breward makes is that aristocratic culture and fashion are important to study because they "played a central role in formations of culture across all levels of society." (p.72) While this may be true, Breward never documents that the royal family's fashion habits had any appeal beyond the genteel-urbane elements of society. Thus, because there is so much evidence on how the ready-made clothing so loved by working-class and petty-bourgeois men influenced fashion in general, Breward's prioritizing of aristocratic fashion seems unwarranted.

In conclusion, while I do take issue with Breward's approach, his examination of how important style, fashionable display, and consumerism were to late-Victorian British men makes this book worth reading and an important contribution to the literature on the intersection of gender, consumerism and urban culture.


(1.) See J.C. Flugel, The Psychology of Clothes (London, 1966), pp. 110--11; and P. Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ, 1994), pp. 29--34, 112--23.

(2.) Breward cites R. Trumbach, 'Gender and the Homosexual Role in Modern Western culture' in D. Altman et al.(eds), Which Homosexuality? (London, 1989), pp. 149--64.

(3.) See G. Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890--1940 (New York, 1994); A. E. Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modem Era (New York 1993); J.A. Mangan and J. Walvin (eds.). Manliness and Morality: Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800--1940 (New York, 1987).

(4.) See the above authors and E. J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca, 1986).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Swiencicki, Mark
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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