Dress reformers on their way to the MDRP Coronation competition in 1937 (from Burman 1995)

Changing ideas about medicine and public health were never more in flux than the two decades before the Second World War.  One group that sought to steer a new direction in public health was the social hygiene movement – a fusion of evolutionary, eugenic and sociological theories that sought to draw a connection between poverty, ill health and inadequate breeding.  These ideas were underpinned with fears that the middle classes were in decline while ‘degenerates’ were on the ascendant.  Much has been written on the social hygiene movement but one often overlooked offshoot was the Men’s Dress Reform Party (MDRP) established in 1929 – a lobbying group formed by prominent eugenicists who wanted to change male fashion in order to make men more ‘beautiful’.

The Men’s Dress Reform Party emerged out of the Sunlight League and New Health Society and was founded by Alfred Jordan, an internationally renowned radiologist.  Jordan was principally known for wearing shorts in his professional life, something that in this period was sufficiently unusual to generate press interest.

The formation of the Men’s Dress Reform Party was announced, together with publication of their manifesto, in the journal of the Sunlight League (Sunlight) and the Times.  It was stressed that the Men’s Dress Reform Party was open to all classes of men, from the ‘working chap to the peer’s son’ and that it was not a ‘crank or a faddist’ organisation.  The actual demands of the new party were somewhat diffuse, but included:

Most members wish for shorts; a few for the kilt; nearly all hate trousers.  Some plead for less heavy materials and less padding; others for brighter colours; but the villain of the piece is the collar-stud.  A wail has gone up throughout the land; man is clutching at his throat and crying (Times 17 June 1929).

A list of those people supporting the Party’s manifesto included: the Dean of St Paul’s, WR Inge, a well-known eugenicist who had written on the decline of the ‘white race’; the eccentric artist, Richard Sickert who had already established a reputation for dressing incongruously, often appearing at formal occasions wearing slippers and ‘loud’ checked suits; the actor Ernest Thesiger; the headmaster of University College School, Guy Kendal; and Caleb Saleeby the founder of the Sunlight League.

The main concern of the MDRP was that men’s clothes were too tight, awkward and ugly and that, prior to the general adoption of dry cleaning, that men’s outer clothing was un-washable: ‘we wear dark clothes which, as we nicely calculate, need not (as indeed they cannot) be washed, for they won’t show the dirt’(Jordan, Sunlight, 1929:28).  Throughout the next few years the MDRP organised a number of events, such as: a Men’s Dress Reform Day, which was to be free of processions and ceremonies but was to be ‘merely the wearing of hygienic dress in town (and everywhere else) the whole day by all who will’(Jordan, Sunlight, 1929:30).  Employers were urged to allow their workers to wear reform dress for the day; and a series of rallies were organised during which prizes were to be awarded for the most imaginative reform attire worn by a man.  Indeed the summer rallies of the MDRP became regular events during the 1930s and the event of 1931, staged at the Suffolk Street Galleries, was attended by about a thousand people, including H.G. Wells.

The movement generated considerable press interest and its activities were covered in The Times, The Evening Standard, The Daily Sketch and The Morning Post.  The first rally of the MDRP attracted around 150 people the majority of whom ‘wore short trousers, tennis shirts, woollen stockings, and ordinary lounge jackets.  Two women were in cream-coloured trousers, with sandals, and a man wore a garment which was a cross between a skirt and a kilt’ (Times 1929).  Correspondence on The Times letters page questioned whether the aims of the party went far enough, as one correspondent said ‘the desire of men for beauty is just as strong as the desire for comfort; and, if this artistic desire be ignored, the new party will be sacrificing half of its possible supporters’.  Activities of the MDRP continued throughout the 1930s but the Party became subject to an increasing degree of popular ridicule.  One of the final events of the MDRP was the Coronation Dress Reform Competition staged at Alexandra Palace in 1937 and covered not only in the press but also on radio and the newly established BBC television service.  Despite the novelty of being televised, BBC publications lampooned the men attending the event:

Whether man’s lower limbs look their best encased in slightly flattened parallel tubes may be open to doubt, but at least there seems no great aesthetic advantage in cutting the tubes short at the knee…[but the show] provided viewers with an entertaining ten minutes and plenty of laughter (The Listener 1937).

After this the dress reform movement became increasingly irrelevant.  There were a variety of reasons for this.  Some have argued that the MDRP failed to appreciate what was already happening to men’s fashions in the 1930s.  The mass produced clothing trade was now able to offer new garments made from lighter washable fabrics and these were promoted with adverts that blended quasi-scientific jargon with the language of fashion, aesthetics and athleticism.  The ‘liberationist’ reform language used by the MDRP appeared bizarre in comparison.  In addition the MDRP, with their home-made clothing designs, seemed amateurish and eccentric.  The clothes used techniques that were more often found in women’s clothes and associated with feminine styles of dressmaking.

The home-made designs of the reformers referenced a style of clothing from a bygone ‘Elizabethan’ age when men’s clothing was more flamboyant, feminine and unstructured.   Today it might seem comical that the MDRP urged men to adopt a more feminine style of clothing.  However the underlying project was more sinister in its efforts to interweave masculinity with the social hygiene and eugenic movements.  Articles supporting dress reform in the New Health Society journal argued that changes in men’s fashion would bring out a male beauty – one that celebrated masculine grace and physique.  The idea was that if middle class men could, through reformed clothing, become more beautiful then they would inevitably also be more attractive to women (i.e. potential mothers) and thus reverse the perceived evolutionary decline of the middle classes:

…a renaissance of beauty for men – true masculine beauty of the body and mind, the bloom of a joyful spirit – might mean happier marriages, well-born and beautiful children, a healthier and more beautiful race (Dion Byngham, New Health Journal, 1932).

It may seem bizarre that the institution of marriage, and middle class breeding, was seen to be threatened by men’s lack of sartorial elegance and beauty.  In retrospect perhaps these fears were no less demented than the arguments currently put forward by those who seek to oppose equal marriage rights for gay couples.