A La Mode – Part Six

The Macaronis

Although claimed by the Americans as theirs during the Revolutionary War, the song Yankee Doodle was originally created by the Brits to ridicule their colonial cousins. This fact, in part, explains the rather odd opening verse; “Yankee Doodle went to town/ A-riding on a pony/ Stuck a feather in his cap/ And called it macaroni.”  What the lyrics are referring to is a particular fashion that was rife amongst the English aristocracy from around the 1760s called macaroni and the stupid Americans belief that by sticking a feather in their headwear they could claim to be adopters of the fashion.

So what were the macaronis?

In the mid 18th century a kind of finishing school for chaps was the Grand Tour involving a tour round the cultural centres of Europe. As well as broadening their tiny minds, it exposed them to different styles, fashions and foodstuffs. Some of their experiences resonated with them so much that they eagerly adopted them when they returned to Blighty. By 1764 they had already come to the attention of Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter about “the Macaroni club, which is composed of travelled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses.

These young men cut quite a dash, their trademark style being a large wig and slim clothing. They also developed a penchant for a form of Italian pasta called macaroni, little known in England at the time, and from which they took their name. To be described as macaroni in the 1760s was to be acknowledged as sophisticated, upper class and worldly. Although, to many, their dress and appearance was a tad on the feminine side, still it remained on the right side of propriety and to some even seemed trendy and exciting.

And that was their undoing.

Whilst it was acceptable, perhaps even expected, for the nobs to make a spectacle of themselves, it was a different matter when the style was adopted by the sons of honest country folk and the middle class. Within a decade the term macaroni became one of ridicule with an association with effeminacy. Indeed, some went so far as to suggest that these dedicated followers of fashion belonged to a third sex.

One song at the time picked up the them with gusto; “his taper waist, so straight and long/ his spindle shanks, like pitchfork prong/ to what sex does the thing belong? Tis call’d a Macaroni.” The Oxford Magazine was equally censorious; “there is indeed a kind of animal, neither male, nor female, lately started up among us. It is called a Macaroni.

The caricaturists went to town. Macaronis were depicted as gaunt men wearing tight trousers, short coats, bright shoes, eccentric walking sticks, and extravagant wigs, topped off with ridiculously small hats which could only be removed by the dexterous manipulation of the tip of a sword. One cartoon showed a youth with hair so long that his hairdresser had to walk behind him to carry it. Another showed a country gentleman deploring the depths of depravity to which his trendy son had sunk. In the fourth act of She Stoops To Conquer, 1773, Oliver Goldsmith wrote of the treatment that any one suspected of macaroniism might expect; “I shall be laughed at over the whole town. I shall be stuck up in caricature in all the print-shops. The Dullissimo Maccaroni.

The Macaroni fashion, unsurprisingly, died out in the 1780s, to be replaced by a more masculine form of extravagant dress, dandyism.

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Four Or Five Frigates Will Do The Business Without Any Military Force

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Last night’s astonishing (and, from my perspective, welcome) trouncing of the international statesmanship pretensions of Cameron bring to mind the travails of Lord North. Described as having the air of a blind trumpeter by Horace Walpole, Lord North was the eldest son of the Earl of Guilford and sat in the Commons as his father was still alive. At the age of 38 he became Prime Minister (in 1770) but was unfortunate enough on his watch to inherit the rebellion of the American colonies aka (in some quarters) the War of Independence.

Despite winning a general election in 1781 he was always thought to be one military disaster from losing the support of Parliament. News of the defeat at Yorktown on 25th November 1781 and the surrender of Cornwallis prompted the retort, “Oh God, it’s all over!” from North. The opposition, marshalled by Charles James Fox, demanded that heads should roll, especially those of Lord Sackville, Secretary of State for America, and the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. North tried to end the war by proposing a Conciliation plan, promising that Britain would “eliminate all disagreeable acts” if the Colonies ended the war. This was rejected by the rebels who by now were determined upon independence and opposed by the opposition. From February until mid-March 1782 the North administration survived six major votes – at each vote the number of absentees and defections from North’s own party increased.

By 22nd March 1782 North knew the game was up as he had lost the support of the Commons and his own party. In front of a packed chamber that day he rose to address the assembled MPs who were anticipating another fierce and lengthy debate only to wrong-foot them by announcing that he had resigned. MPs who had let their carriages go and had to stand in the pouring rain waiting for transportation – no tubes in those days – saw the erstwhile PM march to his waiting carriage commenting, “Sometimes it is good to be in on the secret”.

North was the first PM to be ousted by a vote of no confidence and the last PM until last night to have his foreign policy overturned by the will of Parliament.

Will Bullingdon man do the decent thing by following Lord North’s example?