Butchery and bitchery

Because I work a lot with women writers, the history of sexuality, and literature in general, the concept of masculinity has loomed large in my interests and in my research. For one thing, for example, is there really an identifiable style of writing that reveals the author’s sex if it isn’t known? Can we truly pick out a feminine style of writing or a masculine sensibility? I asked a scholar who has spent the past four decades working on female authors of the early modern period whether he thought that gender could be determined from a work, or perhaps out of its preoccupations. His answer was that sometimes it’s possible to feel that a work couldn’t possibly have been written by a man or by a woman. As a final thought, he added that, in his experience, the question of whether there is a distinct feminine literary register is one that is invariably only ever asked by men. With fashion, however, we are on apparently clearer ground, historically speaking. There are separate sartorial trends for men and women until metrosexuality and androgyny came to the fore during the twentieth century. Except, of course, these trends are not new at all.

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The painting above is Hyacinth Rigaud’s spectacular (I choose the qualifier with care) portrait of Louis XIV, executed when the monarch was aged in his mid-60s. In some respects, it is a conventional work. The monarch, for example, is standing as was usual in royal portraiture. His knee is prominent since traditional obeissance to a monarch involved the kissing of the knee, a tradition doubtless based on the fact that the person doing homage would have to be on bended knee to perform the act. However, Peter Burke’s incisive study The Fabrication of Louis XIV draws attention to the underlying and unresolved tension to be gleaned from the image. Rather than a depiction of regal majesty, the viewer cannot help but observe the curious contrast between the sunken cheeks of the ageing and toothless sovereign’s world-weary and quite frankly miserable face with the entirely unrealistically athletic and long legs of someone who was 64 years old.

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I am more interested in another aspect: the luxurious, thick, and, quite frankly, outrageous wig atop his skull. Objectively speaking, the hairpiece looks, well, utterly camp. Until Louis’s reign, wigs had been seen as a woman’s accessory. There had been a brief vogue for male wigs towards the end of Louis XIII’s reign. This monarch, Louis XIV’s father, enjoyed lavish clothing and the company of handsome young men. In fact, Louis XIV was known as Louis le Dieudonné, Louis the God-given, when he was born in 1638 since the king and queen had not had offspring until that point (Anne of Austria was 37 years old and her husband had been ruling for 28 years). The obstacle had been one of taste rather than biological, given Louis XIII’s penchant for attractive men. Entirely by chance Louis XIII had found himself in his wife’s bedchamber during a particularly violent thunderstorm nine months earlier; he had lost his entourage in the Louvre and had a pronounced and irrational phobia of lightning leading to some unexpected marital intimacy. When his son reached his majority and ruled in his own right, he eschewed the wig as obsolete, preferring to show off his own locks. Male wig-wearing was derided as old-fashioned until one day in 1672 when Louis XIV appeared in public donning a wig. He had lost his hair because of illness and, inheriting his father’s vanity, decided to age disgracefully. The long-standing association of wigs with women, and often women of ill-repute -a blonde wig in Rome signified a prostitute- was abruptly reversed. Courtiers who had hitherto laughed at hairpieces had an immediate conversion and within a few days every noble at the Court was wearing a wig, no matter what the state of their natural locks.

Louis was a crafty creature. He knew that men would be obliged to follow the trend. At the same time, wearing a tall wig together with heels concealed the fact that he was 5′ 2″ tall, shorter than most of his contemporaries. He would go on to have an entire room devoted to wigs and would wear a short one while getting dressed before choosing an elaborate version for the day. What the ruler’s dress decision reveals more than anything is how fluid our notions of masculinity are, for the virile and vigorously heterosexual Louis XIV opted to put on clothes that would make Liberace blush.

The fad for wigs, which was long-lived -it was to last until the early nineteenth century until wig taxes put paid to it for good- filtered through to the clergy. Since clerics were obligated to wear a small tonsure in the crown of their hair, special clergy wigs were designed incorporating a fake coin-shaped bald spot on their crowns, usually in sheepskin, to emulate the tonsure. Some critics had a field day, including an apparently barmy priest on whom I’ve worked, called Jean-Baptiste Thiers. This eccentric ecclesiastic penned thirty books on positively marginal subjects such as monks’ beards, horse carriages, and the correct Latin pronunciation of the word for Holy Spirit. He turned his scholarly and pedantic eye towards wigs, producing a fat volume published in 1690 entitled L’Histoire des perruques in which he denounces the fashion in scathing, though not entirely humourless, terms. He expresses understanding at uninteresting men wanting to sport wigs to draw attention away from their mediocrity and red-headed men at wanting to hide their colour (noting that Judas was reputed to have red hair), but concludes that wigs are unnatural, decadent, and, most of all, unseemly for they are an effeminate accoutrement. As I argue in an article published in a French journal in 2008, here, all is not what it seems. Behind this obsessive and hilarious moral work is a more serious, and more subversive agenda. In a treatise in which the wig is roundly judged to be shameful and unmanly  and in whose pages wig-wearers are critiqued (such as the portly bishop Louis de La Rivière, notorious for both his wig and for leaving a massive bequest to his mistress), one name is conspicuous by its absence: Louis XIV. In criticizing the wig so vehemently and at such length, the man who spearheaded the trend is, by implication, also condemned since every reader knew who France’s most famous and devoted wig-wearer was.

What the wig fashion does demonstrate is the links between status and masculinity. While masculinity might be a difficult notion to define, it does seem very dependent on asserting itself. To be masculine, men often have to act masculine which in turn invariably involves the display of aggression. We only need to negotiate a four-way stop to see male competitiveness in action. While the word noble might denote altruistic values today, the nobility of the past earned their status through violence and the elimination of their enemies. Even the coat of arms, the sine non qua of aristocratic credentials, involves a shield and often incorporates bellicose motifs. Rather than act as a visible sign of superiority, coats of arms likely originated as battle standards enabling noble officers to have their troops rally round them, a pretty useful tool in the absence of uniforms and in conditions in which soldiers would get very messy indeed (the expressions to have guts or to be gutsy are derived from having someone’s guts for garters, that is to say to eviscerate or disembowel somebody).

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Given such inauspicious origins, it is somewhat surprising that all Catholic bishops have their own coat of arms as a sign of their office. Ecclesiastical heraldry is a less exact and controlled science than mainstream heraldry, governed in the UK, for example, by the College of Arms, and it is a great pity that Father Guy Selvester no longer runs his blog in which he used to feature and comment on episcopal coats of arms. Fr. Selvester would take delight in critiquing coats of arms that were formulated by amateurs with no regard for rules, tradition, and sometimes even the rudimentary elements of design. Wikipedia has a sizeable page featuring papal coats of arms going back to 1198. Pope John Paul II had a unique design with a huge letter M emblazoned on his shield, standing for Maria, a sign of his deep-seated devotion to Our Lady. Having letters on coats of arms transgresses every rule in the heraldic book. When asked about this, the late Archbishop Bruno Heim, who was an internationally renowned expert in heraldry, tactfully replied that such usage was a Polish custom. It wasn’t. Rather than displaying an aristocratic pedigree, the pontiff preferred to customize the shield as he wanted, though ultimately this constitutes assertiveness, of sorts.

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Today’s cufflinks are, to me, very masculine. At first, I thought that this was because they were chunky but I’ve come to decide that it is more because they evoke armour, a shield, or a coat of arms. They are crafted out of sterling silver by David Heston, a Californian designer based in San Rafael. I acquired them a couple of years ago, brand new, and they are ageing very beautifully with subtle oxidization giving a slightly matted appearance to the silver. What I really like about them is that, although they are masculine in their suggestion, their symmetrical form also hints at the feminine. Above all, the initial impression of assertion in this piece of jewellery gives way to an appealing vulnerability and, if it doesn’t sound ridiculous, this makes these links almost human.

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