Gentlemen’s Cravats – A Brief History

Before the modern necktie there was a period in mens fashion where we wore ruffs around our collars.

Gentleman Soldier Wearing a Ruff Collar

Gentleman Soldier Wearing a Ruff Collar

These were all the fashion for men (and women) of distinction from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. It took introducing a neck cloth used by Croatian soldiers to get us to where we are today.

Croat Mercenary with Red Neck Scarf - 17th Century

Croat Mercenary Action Figure with Red Neck Scarf - 17th Century

It is easy to imagine a French officer on a battlefield in Europe feeling stifled and put upon by his stiff, starched linen ruff. In all his bother he spied a Croatian officer with the elegant and much less restrictive silk neck cloth wrapped in a much more casual manner around the neck. On his next leave to the city of Paris this officer thought to himself, “Ah-ha!” and he ditched his ruff and tied a length of silk around his neck. Gone was the chaffing and, more importantly, he could lean in close to his petite Parisian chouchou now that his neck was clear. (Maybe this is where the term ‘necking’ first originated, when men went from the uber-formal ruff to the uber-gallant silk neck cloth.)

In any case, he is very pleased with the reaction to his new neck cloth, and soon his fellow officers have donned this new neck wear, now called a ‘cravat’, a bastardization of the French word Croat. A new era is born and embraced by gentlemen across Europe.

Gentleman with a Silk Tied Silk Neck Scarf - The Cravat

Gentleman with a Silk Tied Neck Scarf - The Cravat

There were seemingly endless variations with which men could tie their silk and cotton cravats, thanks in no small manner to Beau Brummell and the rise of the Dandy as a masculine style reaction to the Macaroni.

Illustration From "Neckclothitania" (published by J.J. Stockdale, Sept. 1st. 1818)

Illustration From "Neckclothitania" (published by J.J. Stockdale, Sept. 1st. 1818)

These variations evolved to use patterns and colours to enhance a gentleman’s appearance and outfit. Beginning in the Victorian era the cravat developed into the stylized forms we know and love today: ascots, bow ties, string ties and neck ties. But more on those later…

The Spirituality of Dress and The Dandy

Our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition:  it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul.  ~Quentin Bell

Quentin Bell, Historian and Dandy

Quentin Bell, Historian and Dandy

It is easy for us to limit clothing and dress to a rudimentary and perfunctory role in our present society, given our general acceptance of consumerism for consumptions sake. “I want it now and I want it cheap!” we cry and in turn, so goes our soul. The Dandy is oft maligned as a popinjay; something that is mere flash and distraction. I would argue that the Dandy is instead the canary of the collective mineshaft of humanity, bearing the inner desires and hopes literally upon his sleeve. The stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote of this connection,

Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.

In truly knowing himself a man becomes a gentleman and presents himself to the world, to intimates and strangers alike, in the manner of dress that signals that he has attained this enlightenment of self. As Coco Chanel put it,

Adornment is never anything except a reflection of the heart.

Coco Chanel, Fabulous Woman and Friend of the Dandy

Coco Chanel, Fabulous Woman and Friend of the Dandy

As you begin, or indeed continue, your inner journey of style and soul you must also brave your unexamined consumption of the mediocre through conscious and conscientious dress. To steel yourself let the words of writer Princess Elizabeth Bibesco reverberate in your soul,

You don’t have to signal a social conscience by looking like a frump.  Lace knickers won’t hasten the holocaust, you can ban the bomb in a feather boa just as well as without, and a mild interest in the length of hemlines doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from reading Das Kapital and agreeing with every word.

Princess Elizabeth Bibesco, Herald of the Dandy

Princess Elizabeth Bibesco, Herald of the Dandy


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Article first published as The Spirituality of Dress and The Dandy on Technorati.

Dandyism – The French

Portrait of Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly

Portrait of Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly

I am continually amazed as I read more on the subject of dandyism of both its active social role and the influence this role has had on gentlemens apparel for almost the last two hundred years. I would say that dandyism it is the style of presentation that the modern era adapted, breaking forever with the Medieval period. A leading French dandy, Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, as recorded by Venetia Murray (in her book High Society: A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788–1830), as distinguishing the dandy from the previous fashion of the aristocracy,

…admirers of dandyism have taken the view that it is a sociological phenomenon, the result of a society in a state of transition or revolt. Barbey d’Aurevilly, one of the leading French dandies at the end of the nineteenth century, explained: Some have imagined that dandyism is primarily a specialisation in the art of dressing oneself with daring and elegance. It is that, but much else as well. It is a state of mind made up of many shades, a state of mind produced in old and civilised societies where gaiety has become infrequent or where conventions rule at the price of their subject’s boredom…it is the direct result of the endless warfare between respectability and boredom.

French writers of the era (among other artists and thinkers) like d’Aurevilly, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Baudelaire adopted dandyism,  each of whom further defined the break from the past rule of kings and described in their words, and dress, this new,  modern world and gentleman.

Picking up from Beau Brummel’s establishment of suitable dress for the refined gentleman who was not of noble status, these French writers expanded the meaning of dandyism beyond Brummel’s style and gave words to its role in the political expression of the  social order where the aristocracy was in decline and the middle-class began to rise.

I don’t think the French have looked back since.

The Dandy – A Manifesto

Beau Brummel, Dandy and Kingpin

Beau Brummel, Dandy and Kingpin

From Wikipedia (the true master of us all) we read:

A dandy (also known as a beau, Nathan Dean or gallant) is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self.

Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844

Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844

There is something beyond the mere intent to dress and behave in a certain manner for the dandy. It is something that Charles Baudelaire described in terms of the dandy’s presence  a reproach to the  the responsible citizen of the middle class:

Dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism” and “These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking …. Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, Dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.”

The modern dandy may trace itself to the Jeunesse Doree, or guilded youth, of the French Revolution, but it was an Englishman, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell who distilled ‘Dandyism’ to its current form.

Beau Brummel - the Collectible Cigarette Card

Beau Brummel – the Collectible Cigarette Card

Brummel was known for his nicety of dress, elegance of his manners, and smartness of his repartee. He made personal cleanliness popular. Cleaning his teeth, shaving, and scrubbing in a bath daily. He dressed with simple elegance. Oscar Wilde advanced the practice to one of a political act. Wilde famously stated that, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

Oscar Wilde, Dandy and Scamp

Oscar Wilde, Dandy and Scamp

It is in this spirit that young men have taken on the goal of elegance of dress as a form of social response to times of social oppression. Think of the Teddy Boys and Mods of working-class England, the Zoot Suits of Harlem and East Los Angeles and the Le Sape of the Congo. These styles are firmly grounded in the idea of the dandy. It is a manner of protest of social conscience in a manner befitting  gentleman who wishes to challenge the status quo, whether it be about race, class or sexual orientation.

Cab Calloway in a Zoot Suit

Cab Calloway in a Zoot Suit

Teddy Boys in Manchester, UK in 1955

Teddy Boys in Manchester, UK in 1955

The Mod and His Ride

The Mod and His Ride

Les Sapeurs of the Congo

Les Sapeurs of the Congo

In each of theses cases the careful selection of stylish clothes creates a visual subversion.