Gentleman: The Origin of a Culture

Oscar Wide (1850-1900)


What does it mean to be a gentleman? Through the ages, the term “gentleman” has been used to refer to many things. In the modern context it has become the basis of an entire culture, not only of etiquette, but of fashion, too.

The concept may be closely linked to the United Kingdom and its long history of nobility and men’s fashion prowess, but what may arguably have begun there has now stretched far beyond. It has translated itself into many different languages and cultures, many of which acknowledge the Anglo-centric origin but manage to put their own twist on it, too.

In today’s blog, we’re exploring the origins of “Gentleman” style, in particular looking at the fashion context and how it has helped shape modern fashion and the many connected industries that go with it.

Nobilis: A Gentleman’s Values

The seventeenth-century English jurist, John Selden once pointed out that the term ‘gentleman’ is synonymous with the Latin term “nobilis,” which refers to nobility either by rank or by one’s personal qualities. Gentleman as a notion of manner and style was undoubtedly born in the higher ranks of society, but in the more egalitarian modern world is more focused on a set of values, this so-called “Nobilis.”

What values does the term ‘gentleman’ refer to? Here are some ideas below:

  • Maintaining a high standard of personal manners and etiquette
  • Placing value on the quality and standard of one’s overall appearance and physical state
  • Having a sense of honor and dignity even in difficult situations
  • Being truthful and respectful
  • Demanding all of the above qualities be displayed in others regardless of rank or station in life

        A gentleman in classical times

Evolved: Gentlemen’s Fashion

Fashion has long transcended the purely functional nature of clothing and apparel of distance pre-historic times. Where once it was all about warmth and utility, there quickly came a time when a gentleman showed his worth in society by clothes he wore on his back.

In ancient Egypt, clothing was used as a way to intimidate the lower orders of society, be it the glorious bejeweled garb of the Pharaoh or the authoritative uniform of a soldier. These notions continued through the rest of ancient history and even into the dark ages and middle ages. In these times long ago, even something as simple as a particular color of fabric told others everything you wanted them to know. If a color was expensive to create, or a fabric difficult to weave or form into clothing, then an entire outfit decked in that color and that fabric was the ultimate status symbol.

In the 20th century, however, things began to change, especially after the Second World War had finished. The century started with full dress evening attire with tailcoats, peaked lapels and more. This steadily evolved into the more “casual” (as it was seen at the time) dinner jacket and tuxedo. The influence of the more informal and toned-down approach came from the Industrial Revolution and then subsequent American influence that was falling out of love with older, more flamboyant and colorful styles made popular previously by French nobility. This trend was continuing when war broke out in 1939.

In a new egalitarian post-war world order, however, fashion started to become more inclusive, as companies sought ways to bring the “gentleman’s style” to the masses. What was before held exclusively for the upper echelons of society could now be enjoyed by all. Gentleman’s style became democratic.

A man having a fashion style in the 1900's


Spreading of the Gentleman Style

From the 1950s onwards, while more ordinary people around the world started to become more interested in fashion, it remained the purview of society’s upper classes --- the Ivy League graduates of America, the royal family and nobility in England, for example --- that continued to model the evolving gentleman’s style.

Tweed and wool suits for the outdoors and daytime, dark blues with pinstripes for the business meeting, lighter tones with hats for summer garden parties, and so on. The decades after the war saw social mobility like no other time in human history, opening up this exciting world of tailored fashion to more people.

Even though America had considerable influence over the development of these new styles of clothes, it was still the most typified by the English gentleman. It was that sense of class, of quiet dignity and the “stiff upper lip” element with which Americans couldn’t quite get to grips. The Englishman had it in all in spades.

The spread of economic good fortune and increasing social status saw demand for tailored goods and gentlemen’s attire skyrocket. Tailors left the confines of Jermyn Street and Savile Row and expanded across the country to compete with the dozens of new hands trying to establish themselves as the new masters of gentlemanly attire. Tailors and bespoke gentlemen’s attire shops could be found in every major town and city across the nation.


What is the “Gentleman’s Style” Now?

To conclude, what sort of things make up the gentleman’s style nowadays? The marvel of the 21st century was to make the gentleman’s style far more flexible and accessible for people. It’s now something that you can approach one step at a time rather than having to go the whole hog.

For example, you could start with a simple dress shirt and a nice set of cufflinks. Even a small change like this moves you a giant leap closer to the style of a real gent. After that, how about some shoes? The eye of the modern consumer is quickly drawn to footwear nowadays, and so one can make quite a gentlemanly impression with the right shoes.

After these items we move to other accessories such as belts and watches. These items form a focal center where the eye tends to be naturally drawn. A smart timepiece and a well-positioned belt can project the gentlemanly energy even when the suit they accompany is not of the highest order of Savile Row.

And so, the gentleman’s style can now be achieved either in these small steps, or with a more comprehensive look at one’s wardrobe and lifestyle. However it is presented, there’s one thing that has never changed despite everything, and that is the old idea of “Nobilis.” The real essence of gentleman’s style has and always will have that element of wanting to demonstrate your success, your position, your presence and your vitality. It remains the projection of your best self.