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.