What’s the difference between a peacock and a pocket flap?

George DarwinWhy do hats have hatbands? Why are there buttons on a cuff, or tails on a coat? What does a peacock have in common with a pocket flap? According to Charles Darwin’s son George, the answer to all these questions lies in evolutionary theory.

 

Shortly after his father published The Descent of Man, George Darwin (aged 25) wrote and published an article on the perhaps unexpected topic of fashion. In “Development in Dress”, George put forward the argument that every peculiarity of men’s clothing – from the fold at the top of a boot to the fastenings of an overcoat – could be explained with reference to the workings of evolution.

 

The oddities of men’s dress, George argued, were analogous to the vestigial or redundant parts of organisms – decorative features retained long after their original purpose had faded or, as George put it, “handed down in an atrophied condition”.  So, just as life on earth evolved across the ages from one form to the next, so elements of what was generally referred to as men’s “costume” had changed and developed over time.

 

Typical nineteenth-century Court wear

According to George Darwin, then, evolutionary theory could explain aspects of men’s clothing which, on the surface, seemed arbitrary and non-functional, perhaps even fancy. The purely decorative pocket flaps of nineteenth-century court wear, for example, were a feature which had been “fostered and exaggerated by the selection of fashion…then retained and crystallized, as it were, as part of our dress, notwithstanding that their use is entirely gone.”

 

George’s creative application of evolutionary theory to the finer points of men’s dress testifies that the explanatory power of evolutionary theory was far-reaching; natural selection could reveal the random as rational and bring meaning to the meaningless, whether in the multitude of life on earth, or in the peculiarities of dress. In George’s case, evolutionary theory and discourse offered the opportunity to put forward a rational and – as such – manly explanation for features of middle class men’s dress which might, on first glance, appear more than a little Dandy-ish.

 

Much-feared effeminate French DandyAt the time, the figure of the Dandy represented everything that a “real” middle class British man was not; he was shallow, over-refined, vain, idle and – more often than not - effeminate. [1] George’s work on men’s fashion can be located within a body of nineteenth-century literature which sought actively to define middle-class masculinity as something qualitatively different from its more effeminate, Dandy-ish equivalent. [2] The core message of George’s work was clear: Even the most apparently fancy vestigial elements of middle class men’s costume had functional, practical roots.

 

Thomas Rowlandson's "Royal Navy Captain", complete with manly pinned hat

 

So, unlike the showy plumage of the peacock which had evolved purely for its aesthetic value, the fancy features of British men’s dress could – if traced back far enough – be identified as having robust, utilitarian and thus manly roots. Men’s long flowing coattails, for example, had evolved out of a practical need to cover one’s back while riding a horse and saddle. Similarly, pinned or “cocked hats” (also known as Bicorns) had evolved from the decidedly masculine need to be able to move the sword arm above the head, should one find oneself suddenly drawn into combat.

 

In emphasizing function and utility as the driving forces behind the fancy elements of men’s dress, George Darwin helped defend certain features of middle class men’s fashion from accusations of Dandyism, effeminacy and un-masculine vanity. While it was important for middle class men to be turned out according to polite standards, a careful balance needed to be struck between manly refinement on the one hand and effeminate aestheticism on the other. The part played by evolutionary theory in the ‘manning-up’ of fashion and – more broadly - the construction of middle class masculinity was, in George’s case at least, crucial.

 

PeacockWhat did Charles think of his son’s article? Having read over the first draft, his only comment was that George should rethink the wording of a line or two. Given the generally highly critical nature of Charles’ feedback (even to his sons), one can justifiably assume that he was happy with the arguments put forward and the ends to which evolutionary theory had been put.

 

This is perhaps surprising given that, in Descent, Darwin argues that beautiful male birds like the “Dandy” peacock (as he called it) evolved fancy features purely for the aesthetic pleasure and enticement of females. When it came to human beings, the rules were clearly more complex. While in Descent the peacock “appears more like a Dandy than a warrior“, George’s article was designed to prove that, when it came to middle class men’s adornments, the very opposite was the case.

 

[1] For more on Darwin and the danger of the ‘Dandy aesthete and decadent’ see R. Kaye, The Flirt’s Tragedy, (Virginia, 2002).

 

[2] For an introduction to how hostility towards figures like the Dandy were tied up with tensions between the British and French, see L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, (London, 1994).

 

 

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman. This post was researched and written in collaboration with Rebecca Woods, PhD student in History and Anthropology of Science and Technology at  MIT, and a member of the Darwin Correspondence Project Harvard office.

 


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