1958: The Peacock’s Tail


peacock's tail pearl binder unmanly

In 1958, the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed Pearl Binder’s book The Peacock’s Tail. The eminent fashion historian bemoaned the drab adornment of the twentieth-century Western male, attributing the prevailing dullness and conformity of appearance to a fear of appearing unmanly, effeminate, or even gay.

The Peacock’s Tail

In most cultures, and in most ages, men strutted like peacocks, attired variously in bodypaint, fur, feathers, codpieces and kilts. But by the twentieth century, Pearl Binder wrote the Western male had become a dull and colourless creature.

“Clothing,” she wrote, “is the outward expression of a man’s state of mind. It is his attire that tells the world what he thinks of himself.

And, according to Pearl, that wasn’t much. She believed the modern Western male lived in terror of appearing effeminate. How else to explain the bland conformity of city streets brimming with men in grey suits and white shirts? (What would she have said about that grey t-shirt Mark Zuckerberg was apparently born in?)

Male dress became characterised by resistance to change. Even today, male formal, office and work wear remains barely changed from that of 1900.

Pearl Binder explained in The Peacock’s Tail that clothing acts as an expression of gender, replete with symbols associated with either femininity or masculinity. Men anxious to assert their masculinity will therefore cling to the traditional and well-known rather than risk ambiguity. Indeed, research indicates that fear of ridicule is the primary motivator for male clothing choices.

Dowdies and dandies

Perhaps then, it’s no coincidence that Western male fashion began to stagnate in the late 1800s. After Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the word homosexual in 1868, the concept of different sexual identities took hold.

Not long after, the renowned dandy Oscar Wilde shot to prominence and became an enormous influence on the Anglosphere. But Wilde’s 1895 conviction for gross indecency saw the playwright jailed and his previously celebrated body of work shunned. The dandy went the way of the dodo.

Corsets and laces and jewels

Pearl Binder mocked the modern male’s concern that colourful and distinctive clothing is unmanly.

“Nobody would call Sir Walter Raleigh a cissy. Yet, he conducted his forays and daring expeditions elegantly trussed up in corsets and decked out in laces and jewels. (Check out Wally in a painting from 1602 in the main image above.)

“Nor would anyone presume to cast reflections on the manliness of the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington who revelled in the showiest costumes of their times. ”

peacock's tail pearl binder unmanly
Unmanly? Britain’s celebrated warrior dukes, Marlborough and Wellington.

“Were also the hordes of pirates that sailed the Spanish Main in gaudy apparel nothing but bunches of queers?”

“The lady gentleman doth protest too much”

Pearl Binder suggested that many men’s clothing choices betrayed their innate insecurity.

They conformed to conservative dress standards and mocked others who dressed more distinctively because of a fear they might be thought unmanly, effeminate or gay.

That probably explains the normal male fashion cycle. Gay men embrace a new trend, be it flared trousers, pink shirts, a mullet, or a man bun. Straight men mock the new fad as ridiculous. But six months later, they’re wearing it themselves. And a decade later, some of them are still sporting the now long-discarded fashion, strutting the streets like some dinosaur that didn’t get the memo about the asteroid extinction.

Others, of course, try to jump on everything ahead of gay men to prove their tolerance, self-confidence, marketing nous and style — Harry Styles, I think that’s called.

More about gendered fashion:

Madonna on David Banda’s gender-fluid fashion sense.

How Pose actor Billy Porter is redefining masculinity.

Lil Nas X: music industry like ‘Be gay without being gay’.

Conservatives lose it over Harry Styles wearing a Gucci dress in Vogue.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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