The Macaronis

By Robert Chambers

This text is an excerpt from the entry for July 7th from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, including Anecdote, Blog, and History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character. This book was first published in 1864 with additional editions published later. It is now in the public domain. We have lightly edited the text, modernized some spellings, and added notes, links, images, and additional information.

In all periods and countries there have been persons, and even groups or classes of people, who sought to attract attention by eccentricities in dress. In England, during the last two centuries, we have had gallants, bloods, bucks, beaux, fribbles, macaronis, fops, monstrosities, corinthians, dandies, exquisites, and swells. Reeves, in his God’s Plea for Niniveh, gives a curious vocabulary of dandyism in his account of a ‘gallant’ of the seventeenth century. ‘He is, indeed,’ says our Puritan author, ‘the buffoon and baboon of the times. His mind is wholly set upon cuts and slashes, knots and roses, patchings and pinkings, jaggings and taggings, borderings and brimmings: half-shirts, half arms, yawning breasts, gaping knees, arithmetical middles, geometrical sides, mathematical waists, musical heels, and logical toes.’

(L) Chambers’ Engraving. (Center): Italian coat and breeches with French waistcoat, circa 1770 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). (Right): English smallsword with chased cut-steel hilt and fringe. Attributed to Matthew Boulton (Image: Peter Finer, London)

Amongst the dress eccentricities of the eighteenth century, none was more signal than the macaronis, though their reign was short, commencing about 1770, and coming to a close about 1775. [1] The year of their ascendant was 1772, and the engraving shown represents a macaroni of that period: distinguished by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, a very small cocked-hat, an enormous walking-stick with long tassels, and a jacket, waistcoat, and small-clothes cut to fit the person as closely as possible. Their most remarkable peculiarity was the large knot of hair, thus celebrated in a satirical song:

‘Five pounds of hair they wear behind, 
   The ladies to delight, 0,
Their senses give unto the wind,
   To make themselves a fright, O. 
This fashion, who does e’er pursue,
   I think a simple-tony:
For he’s a fool, say what you will, 
   Who is a macaroni.’

It would appear that the macaronis originated among a number of young men, who had made the grand tour, and on their return, formed themselves into a club, which, from a dish of macaroni [2], then little known in England, being always placed upon the dinner-table, was called the Macaroni Club. A magazine writer of the time, evidently alluding to this origin, says: ‘The macaronis are the offspring of a body, a many-headed monster in Pall Mall, produced by a demoniac committee of depraved taste and exaggerated fancy, conceived in the courts of France and Italy, and brought forth in England.’ 

Horace Walpole, however, writing about the same time, gives the macaronis a different pedigree, ascribing their origin to the enormous wealth, lately gained by certain persons, through Clive’s conquests in India, and asserts that their boundless extravagance soon dissipated it, and brought them to poverty. ‘Lord Chatham,’ he says, ‘begot the East India Company, the East India Company begot Lord Clive, Lord Clive begot the macaronis, the macaronis begot Poverty, and all the race are still living.’ [3] In the following year, 1773, he writes: ‘A winter without politics—even our macaronis entertain the town with nothing but new dresses, and the size of their nosegays. They have lost all their money, and exhausted their credit, and can no longer game for £20,000 a night.’ [4]

The macaronis took the town by storm. Nothing was fashionable that was not a la macaroni. Even the clergy had their wigs combed, their clothes cut, and their delivery refined in macaroni. The shop-windows were filled with prints of the new tribe: there were engraved portraits of turf macaronis, military macaronis, college macaronis, and other varieties of the great macaroni race. At balls, no other than macaroni music could be danced to: at places of public amusements, macaroni songs, of which the following is a specimen, alone were sung to divert the company:

THE MACARONI
 (Anthologized by Nancy Dawson)

Come listen all, and you shall hear, 
Of all the beauties that appear,
And move in fashion’s motley sphere,
   The fat, the lean, the bony:
The boast, the glory of the age,
How young and old can now engage; 
Each master, miss, and parent sage,
   Is now a macaroni.

Each tries the other to outvie, 
With foretops mounting to the sky, 
And some you oft with tails may spy,
   As thick as any pony:
Insipid gait, affected sneer,
With side-curls high above the ear, 
That each may more the ass appear 
   Or shew the macaroni.

Each doctor’s now become a prig, 
That used to look so wise and big, 
With stiffened and swingeing wig,
   That got him all his money:
They’ve all thrown off the grave disguise, 
Which made each quaking owl look wise, 
For wig, of Whip the coachman’s size,
   To shew the macaroni.

The lawyer too’s become a crop, 
Instead of tail, a Tyburn top, 
Alack-a-day! each barber’s shop
   Now looks but half so funny,
As when the windows once were graced,
Where stately wigs in rows were placed
But these are days of wit and taste, 
   Huzza, for macaroni!

The priest that once with rose and baud, 
With formal wig, and hat in hand, 
Sagacious phiz that might demand,
   A bow from any tony:
Behold him now all debonair,
With tiny hat and tortured hair,
And while he prattles to the fair,
   He shews the macaroni.

The cits that used, like Jerry Sneak, 
To dress and walk out once a week, 
And durst not to their betters speak,
   Are all grown jolly crony;
Each sneak is now a buckish blade, 
When in the Park, but talk of trade, 
He thinks you mean him to degrade
   Each cit’s a macaroni.

Who would not live in days like these, 
In days of jollity and ease,
There ‘s no exception to degrees,
   My lord and John are cronies. 
Each order and profession claim, 
An equal right, an equal fame, 
For nothings equal to the name
   Of modern macaronis.

The periodical literature, such as it was, of the time is very severe on the macaronis. ‘No handsome fellow,’ we read, ‘will belong to them, because their dress is calculated to make the handsome ugly, and the ugly ridiculous. His hat, like his understanding, is very little, and he wears it in direct opposition to the manly beaver of our ancient heroes. He has generally an abundant quantity of hair, and well he may, for his head produces nothing else: if he has not a sufficient quantity of his own, he borrows it from his neighbours. His coat slouches down behind, and his shoes are reduced to the shape of slippers, on the surface of which appears a small circle of silver, which he tells us is a buckle. His manners are still more strange than his dress. He is the sworn foe of learning, and even sets simple orthography at defiance: for all learned fellows that can spell or write are either queer dogs or poor rogues. If you see him at a theatre, he will scarcely wink without his opera-glass, which he will thrust into a lady’s face, and then simper, and be “pruddigisly enteerteen’d with her confusion.”‘

After all, it is by no means improbable that the macaronis, eccentric fops as they certainly were, added somewhat to the progress of national refinement. Living in the days of six-bottle men, one grave charge brought against them was that they hated ‘all drinking, except tea, capillaire, and posset.’ In a very successful five-act drama of the day, entitled The Macaroni, the hero of the piece —the macaroni par excellence—is held up to ridicule, principally because he respects female virtue, and swears by such mild and milk-and-water oaths as, ‘May I be deaf at the opera!’ We now know how to appreciate these distinctions.

Notes:

(1) But held on later in the British colonies of North America, hence the use of “called it macaroni” in Yankee Doodle: not only was the feather being called macaroni silly, the use of the term “macaroni” in North America was seen as de trop, backwards, and behind the times and fashions.

(2) The fashion of the food macaroni and pasta in the late eighteenth century is well-known. Thomas Jefferson ordered pasta from Italy and, by 1793, had a “macaroni machine” in his belongings at Monticello.

(3) It should here be noted that, fun fact, poverty’s always been around.

(4) 20,000 pounds in 1773 is worth more than 3 million pounds in 2021.

Reading Recommendations:

Janes, Dominic. “The ‘macaroni’ scandal of 1772: ‘gay’ trial a century before Oscar Wilde.” The Conversation.

McNeil, Peter. “Macaroni Men and Eighteenth-Century Fashion Culture.” The Journal of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (Highly recommended.)

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