Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  May 3, 2016

The Macaroni: A Brief History

I first stumbled across Macaroni fashion whilst researching my MA dissertation, and was instantly hooked by the ludicrous wigs, bright colours and buckled shoes! It completely grabbed my attention, and I ended up rather sidetracked from my intended research on the history of the dandy. The thing that I found so fascinating about this short-lived style was the way in which it carried such clear social and political messages. On the surface,the term Macaroni pejoratively referred to an affected and ostentatious male of the latter eighteenth century. However, this exaggerated and extravagant mode of male fashion actually assumes ‘a social and political significance beyond its immediate importance in the history of fashion’, and can be used to understand the drastic switch towards simplicity in aristocratic life and dress that occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century.

The term was first used in 1764 to describe the fashionable young fops of the aristocracy who had recently returned from the grand tour and reveled in excessive fashion. Although men’s dress had been extravagant earlier in the century and buckled shoes were no new accessory, Macaroni style was so ostentatious that it was almost a caricature of previous male fashions. The Macaronis wore tight waistcoats, heeled shoes, bright colours and face powder, replacing ‘the small scratch wigs of the older generation with elaborate hairstyles that matched the towering hairstyles of the female coiffure’. Although they have often been compared to Dandies (a group who came slightly lighter on in the century), the Macaroni’s chose a far more exaggerated form of fashion. While a Dandy was restricted and simplistic in his look, a Macaroni was obvious, and in-your-face. Their lifestyles, however, were comparable and both groups spent the majority of their time hanging around London’s elite hot-spots and losing excessive amounts of money playing fashionable card games. Carefree behaviour and profligate gambling soon became the hallmark of the Macaroni. However, this behaviour was not without purpose. It was generally an attempt to show off their worldliness to their peers, and also a means of asserting their status and affirming their right to luxury which the position afforded them.

This method of using wealth and extravagance to differentiate yourself from those lower than you was not a new method - the elite had been using it for generations. By spending, behaving and looking a certain way they moulded an image of aristocracy that was impossible for those lower down the social scale to emulate, and so kept their power, status and exclusivity.

However, when the Macaroni’s burst onto the scene the aristocracy was beginning to face certain challenges to their social and political rank. Although they still had a significant degree of power and were not ye challenged by the populist ideals that would later topple them, by the later eighteenth century ‘aristocratic claims to superiority were being increasingly denied’. Feeling towards them was altering quickly, and the later 1760s and 1770s saw the growth of an anti-aristocratic literature that portrayed the nobility as ridiculous and unworthy of imitation'. The lesser aristocracy began to view the foppish ways of their superiors as effeminate, and instead chose to adopt a more ‘manly’ style of living based on the ways of the country gentleman and not the courtier. They viewed any French or Italian style as ludicrous, and developed a new style based on the ‘virtues of work, enterprise, and earned wealth’  rather than inherited title.

The nobility therefore ‘plunged themselves into debt to preserve their rank'. They exaggerated their style to display their wealth and power, and used fashion as a means of differentiating themselves from their challengers. By associating themselves with French fashions they showed their allegiance to the ‘old ways’, and acted as ‘part of a rear guard defence of continental and courtly styles and values’ in the face of change.

REFERENCES : (1) Valerie Steele,‘The Social and Political Significance of Macaroni Fashion’, Costume, 19, 1, (1985).
(2) Peter McNeil, ‘Macaroni Masculinities’, Fashion Theory, 4, 4, (2000).
(3) Valerie Steele,‘The Social and Political Significance of Macaroni Fashion’, Costume.

Ruby Valentine, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • 18th century illustration of a Macaroni