After the Great War, the returning soldiers and that generation that had lived through and understood the war encountered what was termed “a crisis in masculinity.” This crisis was the result of a War that weakened the dominance of the male, and war-weary men were threatened by the suddenly assertive presence of the strong and capable women who had achieved a measure of confidence and independence during the war. For the New Man, there was no crisis, but, like his female counterpart, he turned away from the older generation as a model and looked to himself and to his own culture, which was one of youth and rebellion. 

In comparison to the scholarship on the New Woman, there is little on the New Man and his life after the Great War. To find scholarship on the topic, one has to shift focus to issues of “masculinity.” The Great War and the domination of technology and machines over human heroism or agency threatened the traditional definition of “manhood,” as a condition to be found on the fields of battle. With the exception of military who could operate on their own, such as the aviators, those men who served in the War were part of a gigantic mechanism that swallowed them up, crushed them and then spit them out with ruthless impersonality. Those who survived did so with feelings of masculinity considerably diminished. Neil Faulkner wrote in 2015 about “1914 and the Archaeology of Modern Industrialised War.” This interesting article begins with an assessment, inspired by a famous painting by a British artist, Paul Nash, on the character of the Great War:

“Tory Prime Minister David Cameron is spending £55 million on commemorating the centenary of the First World War. Speaking at a press conference at the Imperial War Museum in October 2012, Cameron made the announcement in front of Paul Nash’s painting The Menin Road. The title is ironic. There is no road in the picture. It has been destroyed by shell-fire. Instead, stretching to the horizon is a landscape of mud, tree stumps, ruined buildings, barbed wire, water-filled craters, and the concrete blocks and corrugated iron of shattered bunkers. Shells explode in the distance. Four soldiers pick their way through the mire.

The Menin Road depicts the battlefield of Passchendaele in Flanders. It was, wrote war poet Wilfred Owen, ‘a sad land, weak with sweats of death, grey, cratered like the moon with hollow woe, and pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues’. For in this place, during three months of drenching rain in 1917, two million men fought each other for possession of patches of slime and rubble. Nash’s painting depicts a new reality: modern industrialised warfare. Some argue that an earlier war – usually it is the American Civil War – was ‘the first industrialised war’. This is not so. The American Civil War was semi-industrialised. There were steamships, railways, and telegraphs. But there were also muzzle-loading guns, shoulder-to-shoulder firing lines, and men charging across the battlefield with flags and drums. The technology was somewhere between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War.

That is why the First World War began as it did: with an outdated military paradigm, because theory had not yet caught up with reality. The French were perhaps the most backward; Napoleonic fantasies were a substitute for industrial and demographic weakness. Lines of French infantry in blue coats and red trousers charged machine-guns and modern artillery. The French lost a quarter of their men in a single month.

Three years later, the face of war had changed forever. Battles lasted for months. They extended over dozens of square kilometres. The terrain was reduced to a wasteland like that depicted in The Menin Road. For most of the time no-one could be seen. Troops remained in underground complexes of trenches and tunnels. When attacking, they crept forward in small groups, rushing from shell-hole to shell-hole. Casualties reached a million in battles like the Somme and Verdun. Yet the war went on, and the demand was always for more men, more guns, more shells. Industrial output was decisive, millions were mobilised in war industries, and ‘the home front’ became a target of bombing and blockade.What was happening was outside all previous human experience, and the effect of the war was to tear societies apart and destabilise the entire social order.”

The Great War changed gender roles, or as Faulkner said “the entire social order.” Women took on the roles of men in city and country, while men isolated among themselves in trenches took up the roles of women, even that of being “mother,” nurturing and caring for one another. An article by Santanu Das discussed a little-known aspect of the War. In “The Dying Kiss: Gender and Intimacy in the Trenches of World War I” he wrote, In the trenches of World War I, the norms of tactile contact between men changed profoundly. Mutilation and mortality, loneliness and boredom, the strain of constant bombardment, the breakdown of language and the sense of alienation from home led to a new level of intimacy and intensity under which the carefully constructed mores of civilian society broke down. As historian Joanna Bourke has documented in her exciting work on First World War and masculinity, men nursed and fed their friends when ill; they bathed together; they held each other as they danced, and during the long winter months, wrapped blankets around each other. These moments were often grounded in experiential reality, the nature of these encounters – men on the verge of death, under fire, or being ill – giving them an emotional nakedness and intensity that not only outlive their contingent nature but that continue to grow in emotional value and resonance. It is debatable whether these relationships were those of “comradeship” or personal “friendship” or trench “brotherhood”: each of these relationships had its particular nuance and value, though it is difficult to straitjacket human relationships and feelings, especially in times of physical and emotional extremity. Moreover, they were all forms of male intimacy during crisis with inevitable overlaps or continuity at times and touch seems to have cut across the range of these relationships.”

What is interesting to observe is that after the Great War, two types of the “new man” emerge: one who came from the newly assertive middle class and would merge in the ideals of manhood with the second type of man, the veteran of the War. Philip Gibbs wrote The New Man: A Portrait Study of the Latest Type in 1913, describing some of the character traits that would survive the War. As Gabriel Koureas explained, “At a point where class boundaries were beginning to break down, Gibbs’ book set out to re-establish masculine norms that showed clear distinctions between the different classes. These norms were based on notions of self-sacrifice, chivalry, and obedience,all qualities associated with the middle-class man, as opposed to the working class man who represented greed, disobedience and ‘un-gentlemanly‘ behavior..The concept of the ‘New Man,‘ developed in the period from the late nineteenth century to the years just before the First World War, has been compared with the rise of the ‘New Woman,‘ who had her own perception of the new man as someone who was artistic and who complemented her needs and abilities. It soon became clear, however, that this perspective was unrealistic in that men already had many choices within a patriarchal society whereas women had only a few. The rise of the new man proved to be an utopian concept..The boundaries between the sexes became rigid and clear cut, and sexual science proved the existence  of innate, essential differences between the sexes, particularly in relation to their abilities, pathologies and desires. Within in this framework of gender polarities, men also found their roles demanding and difficult to sustain. There were demands to succeed financially at home and in the Empire, and ‘the stresses of maintaining an external mask of confidence‘ led to mental orders such as neurasthenia.”   

As Gabriel Koureas emphasized, the literature before the Great War created a high standard for masculinity which one could say with hindsight led men to a battlefield where such unrealistic ideas did with the generation. That is not to say that the basic ideals of decency and responsibility and personal bravery also perished–the Second World War gave proof that brave men could rise to the occasion, but there was a new generation of young men who were all to aware of the dangers of traditional concepts of “masculinity” and simply sloughed off the demands of their gender. For the purposes of this chapter, the lower class men and, to a certain extent, the middle class man is beyond the scope of design and art. This chapter must, therefore, concentrate on the men who had disposable income, and these young men would often be upper or upper middle class. These were the young men who had to leisure time and the money to create new identities and new ideas of manhood, expressed through a change of clothes.  This change manifested itself in England and America for the most part among the Bright Young Things in Great Britain and during the Jazz Age in America.

In many ways, the Twenties was like the Sixties in that the younger generation rejected much of what their elders offered them. This rejection is clearly viewed when one compares the clothing of the fathers and uncles and big brothers with the attire of the young men. The New Man was in college; he was preferably British but could be found in Ivy League schools on the East Coast; he was privileged and had enough money to spend on clothes and could acquire the trappings of a carefree lifestyle, fast cars, fast women and fast living. Free of the horrible memories of the War the New Man could be found in Brideshead Revisited and A Dance to the Music of Time, seeking purpose and feeling a bit lost but bent on having fun. Because they attended tea dances, these frivolous young men were called “cake eaters.” The source of what a sea change in men’s clothing would be the universities, the Ivy League schools in America, and Oxford and Cambridge in England. The origin of what would be termed “preppie,” on the American East Coast was British and upper class. On English country estates, there were strict dress codes that governed formal and informal wear for men, just as in business circles among high ranking males, the well-dressed gentleman always wore a formal suit, preferably from Saville Row. 

The traditional very formal evening costume for the pre-war generation was dark, either deep blue or black, an outfit characterized by a longish coat with a set of tails like a bird, a swallow. These tails would be trimmed with statin to call attention to the cut of these appendages, which had to be dealt with every time the man sat down. The trousers, likewise, were trimmed with a satin ribbon down the sides of the legs. The shirts came in parts, the collar had to be attached with a set of buttons before a bow was hand-tied, the shirt itself would be held together by studs and the sleeves closed with cufflinks. The total ensemble was set off with a tall top hat and at the bottom a set of white spats covered the shoes. 

Obviously, this is an outfit that required a manservant as an assistant and was the complex garment was worn by those who could afford a large staff of servants, some of whom were valets, who had as their main duty to dress the master. What we today consider formal wear and call a “tuxedo” was an everyday quasi formal suit or black tie and no tails, suitable for entertaining at home. The business suit, like the nighttime costumes, was worn with a vest and was dark but not black. The gentleman also wore a long necktie with the detachable collar which was often stiff celluloid. Overall the garments of the adult middle-aged male were rigid and formal and consisted of multiple parts that required some skill in fastening either on the part of the wearer or his manservant. 

As is evident, the new styles of the young men of the 1920s came out of Great Britain and American and more specifically can be traced back to the universities. Called the “Ivy Style”in America, this re-dressing of the young American male was the privilege of youth, of the upper classes, and of a certain moneyed class. It is important, before proceeding to the next chapter, to note that, while the Americans had their own version of the “suit,” it was the British upper class sport and leisure clothes for males that would set the style standards for business attire. The Americans were premier in promoting sports clothes as everyday wear. That division between nations is a rough approximation for there was a great deal of borrowing of English upper class fashions, whether formal or informal, on exclusive East Coast campuses. Together, however, this melding and merging of British country and sporting life and American athletics and mass marketing of a particular “look” to other classes, set a new standard for how young men should dress. I

n some ways, the surge in upper class fashions among the young men in the 1920s seems like the last expression of a class already exhausted by a War in England and a way of life that would soon be crushed by high taxes on the country estates or by the Depression. In retrospect, the male fashions of the 1920s have a deep resonance as the last flowering of what is now a nearly vanished race, glimpsed in Brideshead Revisited. The essential falseness of the imported British styles were critiqued in The Great Gatsby where F. Scott Fitzgerald stripped away the veneer of beautiful men wearing white flannels, pastel shirts and tweeds, driving brightly colored fast cars, revealing the falsehood at the heart of a way of life, a faux style borrowed and pulled out of context where it drowned like the dreams of a bootlegger. 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

9 + 13 =