Looking Good in Neckwear

Naomi Tarrant is a former Curator of European Costume and Textiles at the National Museums of Scotland. Her book, The Development of Costume (1994) explores both the social and physical aspects of clothes. Here, Naomi explores the neckwear on display in our current exhibition, Looking Good.

Francesco Salviati, Portrait of a Young Man Tying his Garter, mid 16th century, Panel: 89.00 x 65.80 cm.

A lot of wonderful men’s neckwear appears in the exhibition Looking Good: The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. These artworks show both formal and informal wear through 500 years, and the battle between comfort and appearance.

The start of the journey is seen in the portrait of a young man tying his garter, dated to the mid-sixteenth century. The strings of his shirt neck are undone, but when they are tied he will be formally dressed. The neckline of the shirt has a band of black embroidery with a small frill above it, which eventually evolved to become a separate neck piece known as a ruff.  This reached an enormous size in the late sixteenth century and was heavily starched so that it resembled a wheel. Eventually the ruff collapsed down, as seen in the self-portrait of Sir Nathaniel Bacon, painted about 1625. He is formally dressed with a stiff, high collar to his doublet, over which flows a tightly gathered linen collar. Its deep border of fine needle lace setss off his rather stern face; amazing hair style; and neatly trimmed beard and moustache. Altogether he presents himself as a bit of a dandy. 

Daniel Mytens, James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 - 1649. Royalist, 1629, Oil on canvas, 221.00 x 139.70 cm.

A few years later, James, Duke of Hamilton, painted by Daniel Mytens, shows how a courtier and fashionably dressed man should look. His lace collar is softer but is still worn with a high doublet collar, and his hair is longer. This is the style frequently seen in the portraits of Charles I and his circle, painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck. However, in his self-portrait Van Dyck wears an informal style of collar, which looks like a piece of cloth just held round his neck. This illustrates a trend where artists and poets, for example, were painted in less formal dress. There are several examples of this to be found in the exhibition.

One of these is of the architect Sir William Bruce painted in 1664, who wears a long lace edged cravat tied in a bow below his chin and lace edged frills on the sleeves of his shirt.  Despite the informal pose, he is dressed for the day but wearing a banyan, the contemporary form of a man’s informal indoor robe, to protect his clothes whilst he works.

Throughout the eighteenth century men’s shirts had soft collars, although there was a fashion for tight cravats for formal wear. By 1800 men’s clothes had become less gaudy and tailoring techniques needed to manipulate the broadcloth used in men’s outerwear were developed.  In the portrait of a fashionable young man by the French artist Francois-Xavier Fabre, 1809, the sitter wears a tight jacket with deep collar, padded and turned-down, with an M notch in the lapel.

Francois-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of a Man (detail), 1809, Oil on canvas, 61.50 x 50.00 cm.
Sarah Dunn, Gerard Butler, b. 1969. Actor, March 2009, C-type print, © Sarah Dunn.

His starched shirt collar is worn raised, the corners just touching the edges of his mouth, and a deep cravat draped round his neck tied in a small bow at the front. Tying the cravat elegantly became a necessary art for a fashionable man, influenced by the dandy Beau Brummell.

In the twenty-first century formality has given way to informality for almost all but the most solemn of occasions. The actor Gerard Butler, all moody in a black and white photograph by Sarah Dunn, sums up how many modern men may like to look. The open-necked shirt worn under a standard suit jacket with lapels merely gives an unfinished appearance, although it is probably meant to be seen as a comment on the restrictions of close-fitting shirt collars. Perhaps a rethink of suits, or at the very least a better designed shirt to go with the suit jacket, would help to restore some elegance to menswear like the historic fashion worn by the sitters in the exhibition Looking Good.

Looking Good: The Male Gaze From Van Dyck to Lucian Freud is on at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until October 1st, 2017.

By Naomi Tarrant, former Curator of European Costume and Textiles at the National Museums of Scotland, 14 August 2017