Eighteenth Century London: The Macaroni

Eighteenth Century London: The Macaroni

The Macaroni

An Eighteenth-Century Character


The topic of this page, the macaroni character, is one of many characters established in the 18th century. He received great attention in public debate, most of all in theatre plays and caricatures. In order to understand why this was the case one has to place the macaroni in the context of 18th century society. Therefore I will give a short overview of the changes that took place in many areas of everyday life and thus had a great impact on society. After explaining the concept of gender in the 18th century I will first introduce the character of the fop, before giving a detailed description of the macaroni and his features in order to answer the question why he played this prominent role in public life. The reasons for this are complex and have their sources in various fields of society.

Historic Overview

The 18th century was a century of great changes. These changes took place in geographical, political, economical and social terms. First of all, England and Scotland were united and so Great Britain came into existence. The political system changed from absolute monarchy to parliamentary system and political parties were established. Britain´s economy changed from an agrarian to a mainly commercial one as trade gained importance.1 All these transformations of course had a great impact on society. The famous `Rise of the Middle Class´ came to be the most fundamental change of the century. The middle class became the most important social class in Britain. Because of the fact that their number increased rapidly, they gained more and more influence on the formation and progress of the country and eventually formed Britain in a way to meet their needs. This became apparent in economic life, culture and society in general. The relatively new professions of shopkeepers and traders came into being. People were moving into the cities, first of all to the capital London.2 Life in the city was different to life in the countryside in the way that people had more leisure time and more money to spend on luxury goods, meaning things not necessary for survival but acquired for pleasure. Previously, clothes and other things were purchased for their utility, whereas now people were able to afford purchase for gratification. Thus a new sort of consumer society arose of which the middle class was the largest part.3 The members of the middle class set determined the parameters for the development of theatre plays, newspapers and books, using their financial power to have goods and literature produced the production according to their taste.

This change is noticeable in particular regarding literature: the genre of the novel was established during this period. The novel was designed to be read in the private sphere, instead of the theatre, a public medium of expression. The novel was the ideal medium for the solitary education of women who were supposed to stay at home. Most novels gave accounts of individual fictional biographies in which sinful behaviour was punished and virtue always rewarded.4 Together with the (fictional) accounts of daily life in the newspapers, the novel thus helped to set the moral standards of the time in which deviant behaviour was perceived suspiciously as the example of the macaroni will demonstrate.

Gender and sex

In order to understand why the macaroni played such a great role in public life and motivated such a vast amount of caricatures (after caricatures of politicians, macaroni satires were the second most popular in regard to their quantity), one has to understand the concept of gender in the 18th century. In this period of time the understanding of the difference between men and women changed. Previously the two sexes were not seen as different categories, but as different `ranks´ of the same one. In this system men where always dominant and women subordinate. This system thus was a purely hierarchical one. It was in accord with the account in the Book of Genesis of the order in which men, women and animals were created. But during the period in question this began to change. The progress in science led to the opinion that men and women belonged to different categories and to a system in which the sexes were no longer defined by hierarchy but now stood in opposition to one another. So now men and women where defined by the fact of being absolutely opposed to each other which led to the necessity of establishing new classifications of what men and women were supposed to be like.5 Examples of this stereotypical approach to classification can be seen in different parts of life. For instance women were the ones who spent the money, while men were the ones who earned it.6 Society had a great desire to categorise and define the different roles of the different members in it. Therefore specific ideals of men and women where created and every transgression was looked upon as being suspect and unnatural. Men had to be strong, hard and busy with earning money, whereas the ideal for women was to be the `good angel of the house`. Men and women inhabited different domains, namely the so-called public and private spheres. Women concerned themselves with the household, children, books and fashion and men went out to work and take an active part in society, economy and politics. If men or women crossed the borders of their predetermined place in society they were eyed with suspicion.7

Constructed masculinities: The Fop and the Macaroni

For people who crossed the borders of what was seen as normal behaviour in some form, certain characters8 were invented. There was the rake, a particular masculine character who was unruly, royalist and virile in an exaggerated way. Women clichés were for instance the Coquette, the Prude or the Country Maid. In the following analysis the characters of the fop and the macaroni will be addressed in detail.

The Fop

The character of the fop can be seen as a sort of ancestor of the macaroni. He was very popular in the 17th and the second half of the 18th century and a prominent character in the Restoration Comedy. In this theatre genre he represented a man who took very great interest in his outer appearance and who was very shallow in his inner substance. He was also portrayed as someone who was rather dumb and slow-witted and made a fool of himself: jokes were always at his expense although he was oblivious to this.9 The fop is defined by his artificiality because everything about him is for the sake of performance: his dress, his speech, his whole behaviour. Although he was perceived as effeminate he was attractive to women. In theatre the `unmasking´ of the fop on stage had the aim of warning women about involving themselves with these characters and of showing them what a disappointment they were because of their failure to satisfy a woman. Fops, in contrast to the rake, were believed to use their elaborate dress to disguise their physical inadequacies and even impotence.10 At the beginning fops were perceived as harmless because they posed no sexual threat to women. But by the mid-eighteenth century the word `effeminacy´ changed its meaning: prior to that it had meant being like a woman as well as liking women. Now the word lost its latter sense and in consequence fops were linked with homosexuality. Sodomy had been mentioned as a foppish action earlier on but now the idea of homosexuality as an identity of its own was established and being effeminate was associated with being homosexual.11 So the understanding of the fop changed over this period. In the beginning he was seen as a mainly comical character whereas now the fop was morally deviant.12

The most famous foppish character of the time was Colly Cibber, an actor and playwright. He performed the role of Sir Novelty Fashion, first in his play Love´s Last Shift and later in the sequel The Relapse by John Vanbrugh, were the character was called Lord Foppington.

Picture 1

Colley Cibber as Lord Foppington

This picture13 shows Colley Cibber as Lord Foppington, a role he performed both on stage and offside. This picture demonstrates the artificial character of the fop. His whole bearing and appearance is a construction of an exaggerated and effeminate masculinity. He wears very pompous and embroidered clothing and his accessory is typical of a fop: he wears an exorbitant long wig with carefully groomed curls. The fact that he carries his hat under his arm and not on top of his head points to the quality of doing and wearing things mainly for decorative purpose. Furthermore he carries a dress-sword, an item which has no other use than that of decoration. In his hand he holds a handkerchief and a snuff box which is a clear indicator for a fop because they were associated with taking snuff and of being addicted to other vices like gambling.14

The Macaroni

The characteristics of the macaroni character as well as the derivation of the term will be described below. Also the issue of contemporary sources will be addressed and the difficulties they pose in regard to reconstructing a realistic picture of the macaroni. Finally the social politics of the macaroni and the various anxieties he evoked in 18th century society will be analysed.


It is not absolutely clear where and when the term `macaroni´ was coined. McNeil states that there has been a genre in poetry called macaronic poetry which indicated a type of Italian poetry that mixed the vernacular with Latin and was supposed to show off the education and wit of the composer. This mixing of languages out of superficial and not out of compulsory reasons fits the image people had of men who took great interest in their outer appearance.15 This quality of creating an artificial character, like writing a poem in an artificial language can be seen to be quite shallow and even meaningless. The term is mentioned in the correspondence of Horace Walpole, a famous writer and politician of that time. He is the first to describe this new phenomenon of fashionable men in greater detail in 1764. Nonetheless, already as early as 1757 there was a foppish character in a play by David Garrick named “The Male Coquette”, which was called Marchese di Macaroni.16 But wherever the term derived from, it is certain that the character of the macaroni was a phenomenon of the second half of the 18th century which occupied a prominent place in public debate, the reasons for this are as follows.


As already mentioned above the macaroni is characterised mainly by his outer appearance and behaviour. In the beginning macaronis were predominantly young wealthy men, mostly even aristocratic. In that time it was usual for these men to take off for the so-called Grand Tour. This meant extensive travelling to the continent with long stays in Germany, Switzerland and most of all France and Italy. Along the way they acquired certain continental habits of which French and Italian fashion was certainly the most striking one. France and Italy were famous for their fashion. For a long time these countries had been an ideal also for Britons in that respect but this had changed because of political reasons. Luxurious and lavish clothing had been the prerogative of the court but with the rise of political parties and the decline of monarchy the latter ceased to be a role model for the citizens. Extravagance and opulence were now seen as superfluous and even as destructive. These features were perceived as unnatural for British men, even as influence of foreign powers and therefore as a threat to British identity. So when the young men, in returning from the Grand Tour, sported these outlandish features they were sure to cause quite a stir. The macaronis wore colourful clothes with unusual patterns like striped waistcoats and dotted stockings. But their most noticeable features were their enormous wigs. Although it was usual at this time for men to wear wigs, they were nothing in comparison. These wigs where piled on top of the head and as if the mere dimension were not enough, they wore tiny hats on top of the wig. These wigs were very expensive and boosted the income of the predominantly French wig-makers.17 In addition to that macaronis completed their outfits with accessories like dress-swords, fans and scent. This sartorial behaviour ridiculed the social majority´s understanding of practicality and seriousness. In addition to that macaronis used a particular kind of language by mixing French and Italian words with their English and by adopting a peculiar pronunciation.18

Difficulties with sources

McNeil points out the difficulty of establishing a realistic and precise picture of the macaroni because one has to treat the sources with great caution. At first sight there seem to be many contemporary depictions and descriptions of macaronis. But the fact that nearly all of these sources are satirical ones turns out to be of disadvantage. It is difficult to establish to what extent caricatures and plays exaggerate the attributes of a character and so it is nearly impossible to say which features are realistic and which are overstated. Another difficulty lies in the fact that real historic persons have been described as macaronis but it is hard to say whether this occurred because they saw themselves as macaronis and really behaved like them or if these descriptions were merely meant to discredit them. Even the concentration on the clothing turns out to be less promising than it appears at first sight. Although many original costumes have survived it is difficult to determine exactly if a certain piece belonged to a macaroni or rather to some member of the court or is a costume for a masquerade.19

Picture 2

Maccaroni Fashion

This caricature from 1774 is a very good example for various anxieties the character of the macaroni evoked in 18th century society.20 The contrast between the Briton and the so-called `other´ is shown in the picture of father and son. The father represents the concept of how a `real´ Briton should dress and behave whereas the son shows all the signs of a corrupted youth under bad influence. Tom, the son, is portrayed as a typical macaroni. His enormous wig and fashionable clothes underline the continental influence. The caricature stresses the fact that Tom is absolutely out of place in contrast to his father who wears the right clothing for the countryside. The white stockings, small shoes and colourful trousers and coat are totally unsuitable and impractical for his surroundings and therefore underline his superficiality and non-conformity. In contrast to his father, who is standing with both feet firmly on the ground, Tom appears to be nearly dancing which points to the fact that macaronis are everything but down-to-earth characters.

Elaine McGirr points out the fact that Tom nevertheless is the more fascinating figure in the picture. The father with his plain clothes, hat and hair seems rather boring in contrast to his extravagant son. Also his retreating posture is evidence for his scepticism and even refusal of the continental attire and behaviour of his son. McGirr stresses the fact that Tom is depicted as the more potent of the two figures, at least at first sight. His wig with the small hat on top is representing a phallus as do the dress-sword and walking-stick. But these phallic symbols are only a sort of costume and therefore hint at the fact that the macaroni dresses that way because he lacks real masculinity. This caricature is a very good example of how these characters are defined by the contrast between them. The macaroni is defined by fashion so the father has to be defined by his lack of it. They have to be absolutely different from one another to achieve this kind of polarisation between the `honest countryman´ and his spoiled son returning from the Grand Tour. On the one hand the macaroni is depicted as a flighty person with too much interest in his appearance but on the other hand he is clearly the more seductive and interesting figure in the picture.21

Picture 3

Maccaroni Fashion

In this caricature22 (1773) the macaroni is the only character depicted. He is shown in his `natural surroundings´ and is therefore not defined by contrasting him with some other person, but by his `female´ behaviour. The scene is set in a boudoir or dressing room, a surrounding which was known to be purely female. Choosing this sort of room implies that he lacks masculinity, that a macaroni is not a real man. As in the picture before, his clothes are excessively adorned and embellished. His wig is ridiculously exaggerated and on top of it he wears the very small hat, which again symbolises the uselessness of the macaroni and his liking of purely decorative objects. Very significant are the mirror and the empty frames on the walls, because mirrors were commonly used as an indicator of femininity and the empty frames hint at the emptiness and shallowness of the macaroni personality. The stance of this macaroni is even less steadfast than that of Tom, he seems to be about to dance. The cat on the back of the chair and his coquettish glance hint at a catamite connotation. So all in all the macaroni here has been turned into a mere copy of feminine manners and thus robbed of his masculinity.23

Social politics24

The reason why macaronis played such a big role in public life lies in the fact that they did not fit the stereotypes of 18th century society. At the time in question, and I would like to argue that it is not so different today, people had to behave in a certain kind of way. If someone crossed these borders it was perceived as unnatural and was consequently a subject to caricatures and ridicule. The fop had been a mainly comical character whereas the macaroni posed a certain threat to British identity. The macaroni behaved aberrantly in several ways:

1. First of all, he crossed the borders of status, which had till then been strictly defined. Pompous and extravagant clothing had been reserved for the highest members in society, mainly for members of the court. In the beginning macaronis had been members of this social class but soon people of the middle and servant classes began to imitate this sartorial behaviour and soon it was difficult to differentiate between a wealthy and a poor macaroni.25 Thus they began to undercut the formerly hierarchical dress system where everyone could easily be identified in regard to his status in society.

2. Secondly, macaronis crossed the borders between the genders which were established at the time and where masculinity and femininity were defined by their total difference to one another. Because of his interest in fashion the macaroni was perceived as unmanly, nearly feminine. Because it was difficult for society to classify him, he was often identified as a sort of gender-hybrid.26 Nonetheless, the macaroni must not be taken for a cross-dresser, because although his interest in fashion was seen as a feminine trait, his clothes where always exaggerated versions of masculine ones.

3. Yet another field of transgression on the part of the macaroni was that of sexuality. It is known that some men who were described as macaronis were homosexual, but that does not allow conclusions to be drawn about the macaroni in general. Some seem to have had great successes with women. That leaves the question whether these men have been described as macaronis because their sexual preferences did not fit the standards of the time.27

Last but not least, as mentioned above, the macaroni posed a threat to British identity. They did not fit into the general notion of how a British man should be and behave. The “classic Briton” had to be Protestant, understated and polite. This identification is set against the common image British society had of the French and Italians. French and Italians were perceived as Catholic, pompous and outgoing. So the macaroni with his continental behaviour represented the so-called “other”: the reaction to that was to ridicule him.


1 Paul Goring, Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture (London: Continuum, 2008) 5-9.
2 Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus, eds., Women´s History: Britain 1700-1850 (London: Routledge, 2005) 1-2.
3 Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa, 1982) 1.
4 For the history of the novel cf. e.g.: Deirdre Shauna Lynch, “The Novel: Novels in the World of Moving Goods”, A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, ed. Cynthia Wall (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publ., 2005) 121-143.
5 Elaine McGirr, Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 12-15.
6 Amanda Vickery, “His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Household Accounting in Eighteenth-Century England”, The Art of Survival: Gender and History in Europe, 1450-2000, ed. Ruth Harris and Lyndal Roper (New York: Oxford UP, 2006) 13.
7 McGirr 11.
8 McGirr offers following definition of the term character: At the beginning of the 18th century it signified the external attributes of a thing or person whereas later on it stood for the assessment of the moral qualities of certain people (McGirr 1).
9 McGirr 40.
10 McGirr 45.
11 McGirr 47.
12 George E. Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia UP, 1999) 45.
13 Wikipedia, 13. August 2010
14 McNeil, “Masculinities” 375.
15 McNeil, “Masculinities” 381.
16 McNeil, “Masculinities” 375.
17 Farid Chenoune, A history of men´s fashion, (Paris: Flammarion, 1993) 10.
18 McNeil, “Masculiities” 382-383.
19 McNeil, “Masclinities” 393-396.
20 Wikipedia, 13. August 2010
21 McGirr 138-141.
22 Wikipedia, 13. August 2010
23 McNeil, “Gender” 425-426.
24 McNeil, “Masculinities” 386.
25 McNeil, “Gender” 411.
26 McNeil, “Masculinities” 382.
27 McNeil, “Masculinities” 398.


Barker, Hannah and Elaine Chalus, eds., Women´s History: Britain 1700-1850.
London: Routledge, 2005.

Chenoune, Farid. A history of men´s fashion. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.

Haggerty, George E.. Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Goring, Paul. Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture. London: Continuum, 2008.

McGirr, Elaine M. Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, J.H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. London: Europa, 1982.

McNeil, Peter. “Macaroni Masculinities”. Fashion Theory 4.4 (2000): 373-404.

McNeil, Peter. ““That Doubtful Gender”: Macaroni Dress and Male Sexualities”, Fashion Theory 3.4 (1999): 411-448.

Vickery, Amanda. “His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Household Accounting in Eighteenth-Century England”. The Art of Survival: Gender and History in Europe, 1450-2000. Ed. Ruth Harris and Lyndal Roper. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 12-38.

Lynch, Deirdre Shauna. “The Novel: Novels in the World of Moving Goods”. A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Ed. Cynthia Wall. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publ., 2005. 121-143.

Wikipedia. 13. August 2010 .

Wikipedia. 13. August 2010