Powder His Face

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
Mezzotint by Richard Earldom after a drawing by Robert Dighton, 1772

When Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni, he was not thinking of pasta. And the author of the ditty, probably a British professional soldier mocking the New England militiamen with whom he fought during the French and Indian War in the late 1750s or early 1760s, was not indulging in mere amiable ribbing of the colonials. Macaroni was an extravagant and self-conscious fashion in male display and an arena in which anxieties about British masculinity were being played out. Over the next decade, back home in England, the image of the macaroni militia officer would become a staple of the booming market in satiric prints. As Matthew McCormack has pointed out in his book Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (2015):

Casting militia officers in the mould of macaronis serves to insinuate that the institution had fallen from its original “patriot” design, as well as suggesting that its officers were sartorially, corporeally, and morally unsuited to the business of war. The “military macaroni” struck home because army officers were vulnerable to accusations of foppery, in an age when they were associated with ornate uniforms, polite sociability, and mannered formality. A critic of the militia in 1785 protested that militiamen are distracted from their purpose by dressing them in “fancy caps and feathers, and other ornaments of parade.”

The feather in Yankee Doodle’s cap is also a distress signal, pointing to fears of national degeneracy, cultural subversion, and effeminacy. The images in late-eighteenth-century prints of preening men in tight-fitting militia uniforms with huge frilly cuffs, ridiculously high wigs, and dainty shoes are funny, but they also raise a terrifying question: How can these Frenchified fops be expected to defeat the French?

The use of the term “macaroni,” the subject of Peter McNeil’s fascinating, deeply erudite, and superbly illustrated Pretty Gentlemen, reached its height between 1760 and 1780, though the word remained in everyday use for the rest of the eighteenth century. It did indeed originate with the habit of eating pasta, an outlandish affectation picked up by privileged young men on their Grand Tours to Italy and one that deliberately affronted the cherished self-image of the English as a nation of roast beef eaters. It came, however, to refer to an outré imported style of male dress and comportment.

The full-on macaroni was a top-to-toe affair: a virtual beehive wig, heavily powdered and perfumed; a long wig-bag and queue stretching down the back; a complexion beautified by makeup; a solitaire (bow) with pinked edges wrapped round the throat; a corsage of delicate flowers pinned to the lapel of a tight-fitting silk suit of some lurid hue—coral pink or pea green or deep orange or, in the painter Richard Cosway’s proud self-portrait, blue-and-mauve brocade with sprays of…

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