Ever wonder why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his hat and called it… macaroni? This macaroni was not tubular pasta. It was a style of men’s fashion epitomized by “fine sprigged fabric, tight clothes, oversized sword, tasseled walking stick, delicate shoes,” writes historian Amelia Rauser. Most famously (or infamously), the costume was finished off by an enormous wig topped with a little hat. The macaroni style was dandified foppery at its most outrageous and scandalous.
The macaroni style, as Rauser shows, blurred the boundaries of gender, as well as class and nationality. Macaroni challenged notions of masculinity on both sides of the Atlantic. It became an issue of patriotism, too. Macaronis became associated with the French, an alien and effeminate culture in British eyes. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” roughly dates to the French and Indian War (1756-1763), and the song seems to have originated with professional British soldiers who had to team up with colonial militias more concerned with their appearances than their fighting skills.
Macaronis took the wigs that ruled western European men’s fashion from about 1660-1810 and transformed them. As Rauser points out, the “extravagant size of the macaroni’s hairstyle seemed to speak at once to his embrace of artifice, decadence, and the pursuit of pleasure.” Such wigs were part of a costume of public life that was recognized “as frankly theatrical.” But the artificiality was balanced by a sober and dignified aesthetic, representing authentic virtue, sincerity, and sensibility.
The towering macaroni wig, however, subverted all this. It reveled in inauthenticity, parody, and narcissism. It was obviously a fraud, a masquerade. While some have argued that macaronis were an early homosexual subculture, Rauser argues that the macaroni’s “gender seemed to occupy a confusing middle space between male and female, while his [heterosexual] sexual appetite was alternately painted as weak and voracious.”
It gets even more complicated. Macaronis foregrounded their eccentricity and individualism. Since both of these traits were “hailed as marks of real Englishmen” the figure of the macaroni tottered between ridicule and celebration: only in Britain! Prints of these dandies were very popular as both objects of satire and models of emulation. Throughout the 1770s, macaronis were fodder for the print media. They were, in fact, the first great subject matter of the mass-produced caricature.
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Macaroni was the last effervescence of male fashion. The middle classes rejected aristocratic foppery and individualism alike. The elites, too, claimed a moral high ground “on the issue of public character and masculine virtue” in somber, sober clothing. Late Victorian dandyism and 1960s dandy-revival were merely exceptions to the rule. The resulting nineteenth century was one long era of black and gray for ruling class men. Indeed, today’s business suit isn’t so different from a century ago.