Vain, Fashion-Obsessed Women
But maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe fashion, lace and ruffles are thought trivial because they are associated with women.
In fact, men were once fashionistas, too.
Many of our serious and revered Founding Fathers wore color, lace, ruffles, embroidered vests, and silk stockings with decorative garters. They also donned wigs, curled their hair and hired tutors to instruct them in the elegance of sitting, standing and gesturing.
Thomas Jefferson was particularly fastidious, his fashion sense costing him a pretty penny. Or, as historians Barbara Clark Smith and Kathy Peiss explain,
Virginia gentleman George Washington instructed a buying agent in London that “Whatever goods you may send me, let them be fashionable, neat and good of their several kinds.” Making a fine figure on important social occasions was part of Washington’s gentlemanly role.
Fashion mattered because it set the socially prominent apart from the rest of society.
But by the mid-1800s all had changed. Or at least half-changed: Women retained a fashion sense, along with color, lace and ruffles. But men now donned basic black.
What happened was business and politics. And since women were excluded from those affairs, they weren’t affected much.
Capitalism was also coming on and men looking for jobs sought to communicate how serious, hard-working and thrifty they were. Ruffles and lace did not convey that message. Severe clothing did.
But women were expected to maintain their beauty and create a “haven from the harsh world” for their men through both their home-decoration and their personal style.
It was part of women’s role to be fashionable. Yet they were punished for such trivial occupation, at the same time.
Just as they are today.
So next time you go to prom or watch the Oscars you’ll “get” why men look alike in matching penguin suits, while women are decked out in colors and frills–and horrified if anyone else arrives in the same outfit.