How Martin Van Buren Made Fashion History

Cristen Conger

," which is a semi-ironic statement these days considering that fashion is often framed as a female frivolity. Normative culture dictates that guys who spend time shopping and cultivating a wardrobe are feminine and foppish. If we rewind history and trace back to when the "male dress code" emerged, men clearly paid much attention to wardrobe choice and what messages their clothing communicated to others. But at one point in the mid-1800s, the only wardrobe message that mattered was whether men mirrored the heterosexual standard that eschewed any embellishment that would be considered effeminate.
," which is a semi-ironic statement these days considering that fashion is often framed as a female frivolity. Normative culture dictates that guys who spend time shopping and cultivating a wardrobe are feminine and foppish. If we rewind history and trace back to when the "male dress code" emerged, men clearly paid much attention to wardrobe choice and what messages their clothing communicated to others. But at one point in the mid-1800s, the only wardrobe message that mattered was whether men mirrored the heterosexual standard that eschewed any embellishment that would be considered effeminate.

Allegedly, Mark Twain once said that "clothes make the man," which is a semi-ironic statement these days considering that fashion is often framed as a female frivolity. Normative culture dictates that guys who spend time shopping and cultivating a wardrobe are feminine and foppish. If we rewind history and trace back to when the "male dress code" emerged, men clearly paid much attention to wardrobe choice and what messages their clothing communicated to others. But at one point in the mid-1800s, the only wardrobe message that mattered was whether men mirrored the heterosexual standard that eschewed any embellishment that would be considered effeminate.

The early 1800s saw the rise of the dandy, the guy who'd likely be labeled "metrosexual" in modern mainstream culture and sported the trendiest duds of the day. These smartly outfitted gents, such as Beau Brummell (aka the original dandy), wore finely detailed suits with silhouettes similar to contemporary women's styles. The Boston Public Library explains that "The delicacy of the man's pinstriped trousers, bright buttons, lavishly curled hair, shoes with little bows, and snowy high cravat matched the overall effect of the female toilette."

Although dandyism was a fringe fad unlikely to ever take off in the mainstream, the sartorial shift that fashion historians coined "the great masculine renunciation" did away with any feminizing clothing features and sparked the (heteronormative) male dress code and hygiene habits. To be a heterosexual, serious man who garnered respect was, as Twain implied, a sensibly dressed man. Thinking about current advertisement for mass-produced men's clothing, such as jeans and khaki pants, little has changed.

In the United States, the man who suffered most publicly from the "great masculine renunciation" was Martin Van Buren. The one-term President lost reelection upon the discovery of his toiletry products. Congressman Charles Ogle publicly lambasted Van Buren for owning products, Corinthean Oil of Cream and Extract of Eglantine, implying that such pampering made him unfit for the presidency. As an early American history lesson in just how much the public pays attention to gender and sexuality cues, Van Buren lost.

The "great male renunciation" and the Van Buren incident not only deepened the gender dividing line between His and Hers wardrobes, it also intensified the public distaste for male effeminacy. The cultural "risk" that comes with women's fashion is sexualization and objectification, while men put their perceived sexuality and masculinity on the line if they dress outside of mainstream menswear. Imagine how different male fashion would be if dandyism had somehow won out over the "great masculine renunciation." I daresay many men would probably have a lot more fun getting dressed in the morning.