In eighteenth-century polite society, convention required elegance and refinement in dress from women and men alike. A man’s approach to personal adornment was a key element in his public persona, conveying messages about his wealth, status, and even character. As a general rule male accessorising was expected to enhance a man’s appearance rather than subject it to wholesale artifice. Indeed, extravagance in dress and accessorisation was not only considered to be vulgar but also unmanly, and perhaps worse, un-English. By contrast, too little adornment would be seen as a lack of refinement. Restraint and balance were a mark of true Englishmen. Men, like women, walked a fine line between two extremes and their use of accessories was essential to maintaining that delicate balance.
The accessories at the disposal of an eighteenth-century gentleman were in many respects as varied and decorative as those available to a lady, and echoed their female equivalents in their use of bright vibrant colours, exquisite (often floral) patterns and delicate depiction of details. The centrepiece of a gentleman’s personal adornment was often his waistcoat, which would commonly be made in fabric of a contrasting colour to that of his coat and breeches and enhanced by lavish embroidery. Buttons accessorised both men’s and women’s clothing and came in an increasingly wide range of styles and materials. Highly ornamental buttons made from cut steel, embroidered fabric, and Wedgwood jasperware and enamel offered eye-catching individuality to fashionable dress.
Nor was personal grooming in the eighteenth century an entirely feminine concern. Wigs, regularly ‘dressed’ and powdered, curled and coiffed with the aid of curling tongs and pomade, were a crucial finishing touch to any respectable gentleman’s outfit. Some men might even carry an etui containing nail scissors, a pocket watch, a razor, and even ‘ear spoons’ designed to keep the ear clean of wax. Men’s and women’s shoes shared a great degree of commonality. In the early part of the eighteenth century, both sexes favoured high heels; only from the 1760s onwards did heels start to shrink in height. For everyday wear gentlemen’s shoes tended to be robust and plain in design, generally being of black or brown leather, with buckles the main form of ornament. However, colourful and decorative footwear made from fabrics and painted leather would be worn indoors and particularly on special occasions.
Yet male accessories were not always merely functional and some reveal the variety of the wearer, such as padded stockings intended to enhance the shape of the wearer’s calf. Before the advent of the full length trouser, a man’s legs were a key element of his image of masculinity, and if a particular individual had not been well served by nature in that respect he could at least benefit from artificial enhancement with the aid of the requisite accessories.