We welcome a guest post today from Nicholas Wolters, author of the new book Masculine Figures: Fashioning Men and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century Spain.
Search for content related to men’s consumerism and fashion on Instagram, and you’ll find just about anything and everything: from short video reels of influencers trying to help their followers style themselves according to changing seasons and half-naked men modeling luxury underwear labels, to models reflecting a variety of gender expressions sporting trends once siloed according to a binary system of male/female. The notion that conspicuous interest in fashion (and related areas like hygiene) was, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, detrimental to a man’s embodiment of masculine ideals seems to be a distant memory, at least for many social media users who identify in one way or another with ever-evolving attitudes toward twenty-first-century manhood.
This wasn’t always the case, though, and when I started writing about men, masculinity, and consumer culture in nineteenth-century Spain back in 2016, I ran into a variety of problems that would later help me to articulate some of the central arguments of my book, Masculine Figures: Fashioning Men and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century Spain. Plugging the Spanish or Catalan equivalents of keywords like “men’s fashion” and “menswear” into library and museum databases yielded little to nothing: Victorian-era fashion magazines were written and published almost exclusively for women, and the fashion plates depicting men that did pop up were, overall, French or English imports. What’s more, available studies of manhood and manliness in nineteenth-century Spain—usually representing disciplines like art history, history, and literary studies—tended to speak of an ideal male subject that embodied middle-class virtues of self-control and moderation, particularly in matters related to the body and dress. It seemed that the typical bourgeois male—the one we are used to seeing depicted in a black suit and tie—didn’t have time to worry about sartorial matters. If clothes made the man, the story they told was a monochromatic one.
This profile seemed at odds with the multifaceted types of upwardly mobile men who rub elbows in the pages of realist novels by Spain’s most famous authors like Galdós, Clarín, Oller, and Pereda. Once I was encouraged by colleagues to be a little more creative with my keywords—swapping words like “fashion” and “clothing” for more masculine-gendered terms like “tailor(ing)” and “hunting”—I discovered, too, that nineteenth-century men embraced consumer culture and its polychromatic wares. The visual cultural record (e.g., illustrations in advertisements [see example, left*] and department store catalogs), for example, showcases a gallery of male social types who openly embraced nineteenth-century consumer culture, a world in which the middle-class citizen was expected to contribute to local and national industries in an effort to support their nation’s ability to compete with imperial rivals like England and France.
Representing the first comprehensive study of multiple masculinities in nineteenth-century Spain, Masculine Figures tells the story of how multiple, middle-class values and virtues were produced and consumed by artists, novelists, and other bourgeois aspirants and professionals. It also shows how realist novelists writing in Spanish and Catalan—such as Galdós and Oller—used the language of certain male stock figures—from the student and the priest to the businessman and the heir—to articulate their own challenges in their attempts to succeed as middle-class professionals. The book provides new material and visual evidence that shines light on the previously misunderstood or unexplored interactions between men and bourgeois cultures of consumption—broaching subjects such as homosociality, empire, race, and sexuality—within which the Spanish realist novel itself matured as both commodity and work of art.
*Advertisement for tailor services from the last third of the nineteenth century. The caption reads, “Latest novelties in boys’ suits in all shapes, sizes, and tastes with an eye to elegance and economy. Special made-to-measure section for gentlemen.” Image courtesy of the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.