- The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860–1914
Literary scholar Brent Shannon's work, The Cut of His Coat, argues not only that men's fashion should matter to contemporary scholars, but also and more importantly, that is was highly significant to Victorian [End Page 193] men even as they professed to disdain it. Shannon's main concern is men's growing participation in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century consumer culture, using fashion to examine this phenomenon in terms of its connection to class and gender. Two important changes occurred during this period that reshaped both women and men's relationship and access to fashion. The rise of mass production of ready-to-wear clothing allowed fashionable dress consumption to expand to include the middle class more fully. At the same time, those in the industry seeking to profit from men's spending sought to refashion consumption itself as not simply a feminine delight, but also as an activity appropriate for respectable men. Shannon's work reflects recent trends in the scholarship of several disciplines analyzing the links between fashion, consumer culture, and ideologies of gender, including masculinity. Shannon's contribution builds on that of Laura Ugolini, David Kuchta, and Christopher Breward, among others.
From the point of view of fashion and consumption theory, Shannon seeks to demonstrate that middle-class British men developed unique consumer identities through their own agency, rather than mindlessly emulating the upper class, as scholars like Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel posited. Yet the theorist that Shannon is most dedicated to challenging is J. C. Flugel, who argued in 1930 that a "Great Masculine Renunciation" of men's fashion occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that saw the ubiquitous adoption of the standard black business suit. For too long, Shannon contends, have scholars unquestioningly followed Flugel's lead. Shannon acknowledges that men's fashions did change dramatically to become more uniform and business-oriented, but even as Victorians tried to hide and standardize men's fashion, its very "renunciation" demonstrated a continuing engagement with it.
Shannon is certainly successful in his goal of finding the complexities present in the notion of a widespread renunciation of fashion by all British men, especially in Chapter 4, discussing upper class dandies and middle-class "mashers," whom the upper class lampooned for their inept and ostentatious pretentions to fashionable dress. What is at times problematic is a tension in Shannon's scholarly aims between competing desires to analyze ideologies of gender and fashion and actual consumer practices. In one breath Shannon states that his work examines "the costume, grooming habits, and consumer practices of Britain's middle class urban males" (p. 9), but later he states, "ultimately, The Cut of His Coat is an examination of what new ideologies of manhood were constructed through new kinds of mass-produced clothes" (p. 11). The bulk of Shannon's evidence stems from fashion periodicals, advertisements, and literary sources, such as Victorian novels by Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, [End Page 194] and H. G. Wells. Therefore, despite his desire to "argue that many middle class men negotiated around the Great Masculine Renunciation, actively—even aggressively—pursuing fashion" (p. 26), Shannon's sources actually allow him to explore the "discursive codes regarding male clothing and consumption" (p. 17).
Indeed, Shannon is at his best when engaged in discursive analysis of his sources, especially the men's periodical, Fashion, analyzed in Chapter 3. Fashion premiered in London in 1898 and was unique for addressing its readers both as men and as consumers dedicated to fashion, much like women's magazines of the period. This rich source material provides Shannon with a means to analyze the anxieties surrounding gender and class in terms of men's fashion for those to whom it mattered most. Fashion also included many advertisements that provide Shannon with a view of what products were available to Fashion's readers and the ways in...