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Masculinity, Femininity and All Things Pretty
Something I’ve been thinking about lately...How have our definitions of masculine and feminine traits and symbols changed? Let me clarify what I mean, I’m not referring to what it means to be masculine or feminine. I think that was fairly well covered in this topic. What I am wondering about is why certain symbols, colors, decorations and ways of dressing are considered too feminine for 21st century men, yet were fairly common in the past. I’m thinking about hearts, flowers, tassels, ruffles, etc.

I was looking over a friend’s shoulder yesterday at some pictures of antique swords and a particular smallsword caught my eye. It’s grip seemed to be painted or enameled and it reminded me of a Limoge box, the type of knick knack that my mother would admire. It was very feminine to the “modern” eye. And I thought about all the other symbols and manners of dress that would be considered too feminine or even “sissy” now.

Some examples:

The use of tassels on pole arms - Let’s temporarily ignore what function the tassels may or may not have served, but let’s just notice that they are pretty. Yet, I’m fairly sure no one was called a “sissy” for having a tassel on his pole arm. Would any of you use tassels as a modern accessory for any of your weapons or tools?

Hearts and flowers - These are considered to be very feminine symbols now. However, they seem to be everywhere historically, on armour, weapons, targes, etc. Again, a 21st century man would probably not choose to wear hearts or flowers or decorate his tools with these symbols. A man might have his initials engraved on a pocket knife. Would he want hearts or flowers on it too? (Most guys could get away with a flowered Hawaiian style shirt, a la Jimmy Buffet.)

Ruffles on clothing - The horrors! Think Seinfeld’s “puffy shirt”. But, again, ruffles and puffy shirts appear in countless portraits and illustrations of historical figures. (Though, I confess, my high school boyfriend wore a seafoam green tuxedo with a ruffled shirt to the prom. I thought he looked great. Now you know how old I really am! :lol:)

Colors - Modern men don’t wear a lot of bright or “pretty” colors, such as pink. A few can get away with it, think the “preppy” look or, a couple of decades back, Miami Vice.

My apologies if this subject has been exhausted in a previous thread. I’ve found bits and pieces of this subject discussed in other threads, but I wanted to consolidate some of these ideas.

I want to know what do you gentlemen think about hearts and flowers and all things pretty in a modern context? I’m guessing that you don’t even think about them except in a gift context for wives and girlfriends. Why have they gone out of style for men? Is it that with our modern society we’ve lost the some of the roles men have played in the past? If you were wearing armour or carrying an edged weapon no one was going to question your masculinity. Is it strictly fashion and media driven? In which case we might expect a cycle back to men wearing these symbols again.

I have my own strong opinions on what a man should be. My signature line sort of spells it out. That is as long as you don’t take it too literally. (Though, that’s okay, too. I really enjoy being in my German longsword class. ;) ) This isn’t what this post is about. To help keep on topic with this off topic, what symbols do you use on your modern weapons or tools? Would you deliberately avoid a “feminine symbol”? What would you wear to a modern duel, e.g. a court case or a board meeting? What would happen if you wore pink or ruffles? Why were these things okay “back in the day”, but not now?
I'm oversimplifying, I'm sure, but medieval/renaissance western culture had a lot of "if you have got it, flaunt it" sensibility. For a man's wardrobe this translated into rich, bright fabrics, perhaps even jeweled/gilded, with furs, etc. Anything to show how rich and powerful said individual was. Understatement was not a virtue (it seems to me). At some point, that changed, and may have a lot to do with Puritanism, social change, leveling of class structure (I'm not sure).

As fars as today goes - I have maybe 5 shirts in variety of shades of pink. (I have one on as I type). I think a blue shirt every day is incredibly boring, but that seems to not be the opinion of most of my co-workers. However, if I had an important meeting, I would probably go with a blue or white shirt with my suit...

I like my Brooks Bros pink tie as well as my halberd. They cost about the same.

Anyway, context is everything. Take a look at a USMC senior NCO in dress blues, a Zouave of the Civil War era or a Victorian cavalry officer. Talk about flash! Also, lots of modern men wear their over-the-top flash on their wrist.
Interesting topic. I suspect that many of the things we now take to be masculine/feminine symbols were not necessarily either in the past. One example would be lace, which we now think of as feminine. But back in the day, no self respecting Cavalier would be caught dead without it. My understanding is that lace didn't symbolize anything specifically masculine to them, but rather status and refinement of taste.

I'm a reenactor of various roles from 1530-1650, so I have occasion to wear some things that are significantly frillier than I would wear to work. I've always approached dress as half advertising, which is geared towards the customer rather than the seller, so when how I dress makes a difference I care about, I pick what to wear carefully. The other half of dress is self expression, and I have a fairly diverse wardrobe in this regard.

I don't really use any symbols on my weapons or tools except for my initials on some of them. In the past, I have also just focused more on making things appear unique rather than using specific symbols. For example, in a job where everyone wore company supplied rubber boots, I spray painted a happy face on one boot, and a sad face on the other. I didn't have theatre in mind, and two smiles/frowns just didn't feel right. All I wanted was to be able to look at a row of 200 rubber boots and pick mine out immediately. It worked great. I'm sure I could apply some symbology retroactively, but it wasn't the case then.

That said, I would have no problem if my sword had hearts all over it, as long as there was no Hello Kitty on it (because that would be my wife's sword).
Hello all!


I think the meanings of certain symbols have changed over time. In our overtly secular and "modern" world, flowers are considered to be feminine. However, in earlier times, certain flowers could have religious or other symbolic meanings. Some of the early 14th century English brasses show a profusion of roses or other floral designs. Both Sir John D'Aubernoun the Younger and Sir John De Creke have either outer gambesons or coat-of-plates peppered with flowers (probably roses in the case of De Creke- they are similar to the five-petalled heraldic rose). Even a few of the sword grips show roses or other flowers used as a decorative motif (the brass of Sir Robert de Burres shows a sword grip decorated with two sizes of roses and stars or sunbursts). The rose, the daisy, and lily all have religious symbolism attached to them. They can also be heraldic symbols. The same can be true for the fleur-de-lis. The flowers may have meant more to the people in the medieval period than merely "pretty decoration". Also, flowers are a recurring decorative motif.

The same thing applies to hearts: the heart is seen as a romantic symbol (sissy, perhaps) today, but it could have other connotations in periods past. The heart could be a heraldic charge; the Douglasses bore a heart in their coat-of-arms after Sir James attempted to take Robert the Bruce's heart to the Holy Land. I wouldn't be surprised if the Douglasses used the heart motif frequently as decoration. It would have had more meaning to them than merely a "romantic" symbol.

Today, colour doesn't necessarily indicate status. A man can be dressed in a black Armani suit and definitely look "classy". In the medieval period, color could show your status, especially if it involved cloth-of-gold, velvet, silk, or other rich fabrics. I think men and woman of wealth in the medieval period would often wear clothing in an array of colours that we would consider "gaudy" because it was a prominent display of status. They wanted to be seen.

I'm not sure when pink became a "feminine" colour, and blue a "masculine" colour; it's probably a fairly modern phenomena. I do believe that it's not universal; I seem to recall hearing that yellow is a feminine colour outside of the western world.

Ruffles actually became popular amongst the "new romantics" of the early 80s, but I think it was seen as being a bit "frumpy" (the beginning of "Metrosexual", perhaps?). Yes, I was an 80s child- I have a book showing the members of Duran Duran in their early days when they all dressed in ruffled shirts. The style may come back someday. Who knows?

This is a timely question, since my daughter just finished reading "Macbeth". There are some interesting comments regarding masculinity and femininity in the Bard's timeless work. I know this statement really has nothing to do with the topic, I just thought I would mention it.

Personally, I would use "feminine" symbols on my arms and armour, when appropriate. I actually like roses (I grew a few rose bushes in my previous home), and would use them if I were to decorate a 14th century gambeson. The only reason I haven't embroidered or otherwise decorated the things I've already made is due to time. I was lucky I managed to find the time to make a plain gambeson and padded cuisses, let alone ones richly decorated with embroidery!

I actually did have tassels on a Cold Steel javelin I had. I know it wasn't necessarily historically accurate, but it looked nice. Tassels were rarely but occasionally seen on sword grips; maybe I should try that someday. I did have a deep blue cord overlain with an over binding (in a criss-cross pattern) of knotted red cord on my MRL Norman sword, until it got dirty from and started to fray. I also cut a flared cross in the boss of the pommel, and glued a small amethyst bead in the centre, for a "pretty" effect. I don't know how historically accurate this was, but it made a plain and rather clunky sword look a little nicer.

Maybe I'm just not a very "masculine" man. I tend to have very few "stereotypically" masculine interests. Of course, maybe I'm just an "eccentric"!

I hope my aimless ramblings made sense!
I think it really boils down to the fact that tastes change. So do the ways we express our affluence. It used to be through bright colors, jewels and prodigious amounts of lace, silk, firs and, anything that sparkled. Basically the historical equivalent of "bling". Nowadays we do the same thing, but instead of wearing loads of lace, we wear Armani, Rolex, and Jerry Garcia (speaking for the guys of course). Instead of the latest in horses, we drive (or dream of driving?) our BMW/Lexus/Mercedes/Bentley/Rolls/Porsche, etc.

You will most likely NOT see hearts emblazoned on our weapons because the connotation has changed in the last 5-6 centuries. Although, you might see unicorns (along with the lion) on some British arms if they're for presentation or something. However, you can see floral (or rather, vine) motifs on custom firearms to this day (Ruger Customs, Shotgun, Beretta 92FS). You'll also find tassels in various different military dress uniforms including on the shoulder braid and the sword knot. Still no hearts though :p . I think we tend to use symbols that convey the impression we want. If the previous meaning of a symbol no longer holds, we won't use it anymore.

Now if only we could get rid of the necktie.... :D :p

Historically, frills, colors, and tassels said "I'm rich and I want you to know it!!!!" Somehow, for some reason, that stuff came to mean "I'm feminine". I think it has something to do with knights going out of style, and more utilitarian soldiers becoming popular (when the gun truly replaced the mounted knight), when they went out of style so did their fashions, just my opinion, probably wrong :\

In a modern context, although it seems "unnacceptable" to have such styles I have a pocket knife with roses carved into the handle, and my machete and pickaxe have tassles on them :eek: :D (I do a lot of clearing brush and yard work). Oh yeah, and I look oh so sexy in my pink shirt! :cool: Maybe it has something to do with knights being confident and modern men being too insecure to have such styles (no offense meant :D ). :confused:

J. Bedell wrote:
Historically, frills, colors, and tassels said "I'm rich and I want you to know it!!!!"

To a large degree, this is dead on. In the old days, you wore colors, because they were expensive. Now you DON'T wear colors, because they are cheap. Think of a man in a finely tailored suit... in bright green silk. He looks sleazy, because you just 'don't wear a green suit, because colors are gaudy, and they are gaudy because technology has allowed us to reproduce them cheaply.

If you look at very isolated and primitive cultures, you will fine people wearing shiny, bright color, soda cans. To us this is madness, but they think they look good, and it's the only thing they have that is shiney, so they use them. If we wanted shiney outfits, we could have them in all sorts of ways. (And many women do when they are in fashion.)

So whilst I certainly agree that maculinity is still an issue here, don't forget the aspect of money, and what's cheap/expensive, and the effect that has on acceptability.
Showing off ones wealth would explain the medieval/renaissance desire to dress as flamboyantly as possible, whilst keeping the garments practical. I only say that, because an image of a brocade wearing michelin man sporting lace and frills, that couldn’t put his arms down, just popped into my head.

Men used to take to the fashion of peacocks and women, at various times throughout western history, seemed to be the more modestly attired sex. Today things are quite the opposite and media will, and does, show you that every time you turn on a television. As we moved passed a modest period of history men’s fashion kept more reserved, streamline is refined and sexy, and women’s fashion has been pushed forward and is more openly sexual as we push passed the puritan hangover. Fashion roles have changed. Pretty things like flowers and spiffier colors go to the female. I can think of quite a few social factors that have influenced this, but I don’t really feel like trying to chronolgize what I have in mind, and fill it gaps were I’m wholly ignorant.

I personally love flowers, and see nothing wrong with wearing a brocade jacket; however, in a board meeting I would dress to the desired image of a modern businessman, and in a courtroom I would try to avoid annoying the person presiding over a hearing, case, or whatever.

Albion’s Tritonia is appealing to me, mainly, because of that little flower thing on the pommel. It’s a reproduction of a sword that fits my taste in aesthetics. I love flora. I love blades engraved with elaborate scenes. I fancy mother of pearl grips on Colt 1873s with engraved cylinders and barrels.

I plan to have my next custom, or perhaps semi-custom sword, done with fabrics, although modern, in a style that was popular “back in the day”. I would like to use fabrics for both the grip and a matching scabbard.

Does anyone else say “back in the day” and the people you are talking to assume you mean something like, fifty years ago? lol God, this took a lot out of me. I'm going to go back to lurking... Do I digress? :\

Last edited by Ryan A. C. on Wed 13 Dec, 2006 4:13 pm; edited 2 times in total
Let's not forget that bright colors and symbols such as flowers or hearts were very useful tools of communication on a medieval battlefield as well. Heraldric devices had to be simple and very easily recognizable in order for them to be effective. Bright yellow or white against black or red would be much easier to recognize than dark grey against navy blue! Hearts and flowers are very graphic images that work well to this effect. Look at semaphore flags. No one would call a naval warship "sissy" even though it has very brightly colored flags hanging from it. This purpose in combination with the flaunting of wealth gives us men in bright colors and lace. Or they were just sissies.
Hi Pamela, interesting post

i believe that the terms 'feminine' and 'masculine' are defined relative to contingent and shifting social contexts. So, what may be considered 'feminine' at one time or location may be considered otherwise in a diffierent context. This is evident not only across history but also across cultures - long finger nails may appear 'feminine' in a western culture while being a sign of wealth and refinement in some asian cultures for example.

Such definitions as 'maculine' and 'feminine' are real and understandable only so far as people accept and believe in them within and relative to a contingent social situation.

Did you see the recent film version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet' set in a modern city? Remember Tybalts' bullet proof vest in blood red and pink with roses and a heart?. View that vest by itself and it may appear 'feminine'. In the context in which it appeared in the film however, it was undoubtadly very 'masculine'.

Another thing to keep in mind is that such apparently opposite terms as 'masculine' and 'feminine' are defined relative to and by each other - that is, what is 'feminine' is so due to its not being 'masculine' and vice versa. 'Masculinity' is recognisable as such only when contrasted with 'femininity' - neither would exist without the other and so they are in a sense inseperable, two sides of a single coin.

cheers, adam
An interesting subject. It might be a bit hard to say what exactly is considered masculine vs. feminine nowadays as mentioned previously. Is it masculine if enough(one?) men wear it, or rather; what constitutes an item/style/fashion to become gender-bound. I don't think there is a definitive answer to that one...

Another example may be hosen. How many men today do you see wearing tights? Granted, we have some examples of rather tight jeans and similar, I for one am guilty of owning a pair of rather tight leather trousers...but still.

Funny you should bring up ruffled shirts...I have ruffles, frills, lace and whatnot on most of my shirts, probably because I am frequently in love with extravaganza. :p

Johan Schubert Moen
Nowadays dressing as a fop is good camouflage for martial ability. In days bygone it was more advertisement by all the "young blades" at court. Long live foppery I say. It's fun being surprising.

The elements of surprise, subterfuge and camouflage are potent weapons. I am reminded of the Thai 'lady-boys' - attractive 'women' who use their sexual allure and camouflage to attract unsuspecting fools who are then robbed with the help of concealed blades, drugs and explosive Muay Thai (kick boxing).

For those tough guys who reckon good looking boys are 'sissies' - keep your eyes and minds open fellas, things are not always as they seem... ;)

of-course, most 'lady-boys' are not thieves and I didn't mean to infer that they are, just thought it was a good example of the martial uses of subterfuge and gender confusion.

cheers, adam
Well, if we saw a baroque era gentleman walking through a urban street today we would definitely call him a sort of transvestite: long wig with elaborate curls, a whitish make-up, embroidered silk fabrics, stocking of silg etc: the triumph of lace too.

But they were very differentiable from their contemporary women, whose wigs and dress would reach for far higher peaks of complicatedness.

On the contrary a modern woman in jeans, no make up and with solely a long hair would appear like a jung male worker apprentice to a person of that age.
I can't wear pink because I'm a winter. I think it marks a change in masculinity that I even know that.

Basically what you're saying with this thread is that you are just dying to know when green tuxedos with frilly shirts will come into fashion again because you love them isn't it ? Confess now. That or Sherwood Forest.

Not much to add to the above - it's the fashion of the day. And the cycles aren't that long. I have a great photo of my parents at the Stones in the Park 1969 concert just after they got married where my dad had more flowers and embroidery on his outfit than a streetful of 18th century Macaronis. The 50's were plain, the sixties more flamboyant, the 70's let's just forget about them, and probably the 80's too. The 90's where I grew up in Manchester in the midst of the the post-acid house, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays thing we were all decked out in retro-hippy flower shirts and jeans so wide you could route a highway up the trouser leg.

I wonder often that the decoration on smallswords I see is floral and delicate not covered with scenes of dead duellists and think was it a sign of contemporary bling or the fact that people didn't see such a schism between an elegant accoutrement and something which was designed to kill your opponent. Bit of both I think, as people above have said. I heard a review in a taxi on the radio of a new book called, I think, 'Dancing to War' which covers this topic in a broader sense- the attitude of Napoleonic officers to war - dancing at balls before committing and receiving the most hideous butchery the next day and the social attitudes towards masculinity and dress in what was potentially a very violent society.

If it's any consolation to your romanticism the at first fencing club I joined the girls used to pin paper flowers on the boy's left breast before matches - the idea being you should not let it be touched - very traditional and sentimental but it generally resulted in a lot of shredded paper flowers, grinning opponents and very embarrassed young boys.

Fear not - the day of the shiny green tuxedo shall return, Pamela.

But then given a good excuse. :p Like Halloween, a renfair, a trekky or sci.fi. event, living history etc ..... anything historical or fantasy costume can pass the " masculinity " test and may even be very " Male " while the same stuff worn shopping for groceries would attract stares or guffaws.

What is interesting is how " frozen in time " men's fashion has become since the late 19th century: O.K. details may change like width of lapels or ties but overall the suit, shirt and tie are pretty much the same. Relaxed wear of work or sport clothes have loosened thing up a bit and 1970s bell bottoms were weird. The range of mens fashion still seems pretty tame and unchanging: Really radical changes like modern togas or kilts or tights, feathers or just body paint ........ :eek:

What would change things would be " feminine " kinds of body awareness i.e. feeling " pretty " being expressed in what would be seen as being a masculine version of the same thing.

Men would have to rediscover a whole body sensuality instead of a strictly " genitalia " focused self-image and sense of fun.

Won't happen anytime soon I think except, as I said at the very beginning, some " excuse / context " makes it possible in a limited way. A wildly popular film might have everybody dress like pirates for example. :p :lol:

( Edited: Oh, and I would love to be able to wear a large dagger all the time without having to worry about the Swat team's laser sights making pretty patterns between my eyes or scaring the public or being seen as a threat :p :lol: )
Just a little take on the heart motif... There is an excellent dark rum from New Zealand called "Black Heart", and I urge any rum aficionadi who haven't tried it to get hold of some. The label is emblazoned with - wait for it - a black heart, and it is the hardest looking label I've seen. Take a bottle of that to a party and you won't be fielding any questions about your masculinity - if you're male.
But then again, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts...? No, it's all too confusing.
Jean Thibodeau wrote:
But then given a good excuse. :p Like Halloween, a renfair, a trekky or sci.fi. event, living history etc ..... anything historical or fantasy costume can pass the " masculinity " test and may even be very " Male " while the same stuff worn shopping for groceries would attract stares or guffaws.

What is interesting is how " frozen in time " men's fashion has become since the late 19th century: O.K. details may change like width of lapels or ties but overall the suit, shirt and tie are pretty much the same. Relaxed wear of work or sport clothes have loosened thing up a bit and 1970s bell bottoms were weird. The range of mens fashion still seems pretty tame and unchanging: Really radical changes like modern togas or kilts or tights, feathers or just body paint ........ :eek:

What would change things would be " feminine " kinds of body awareness i.e. feeling " pretty " being expressed in what would be seen as being a masculine version of the same thing.

Men would have to rediscover a whole body sensuality instead of a strictly " genitalia " focused self-image and sense of fun.

I remember a few years ago MRL offering a line of mens' clothing called "Practikilts" or something like that. They were "kilts" (and I use that term verrrrrrrrry loosely) with lots of snaps and pockets. The funniest picture was the biker dude with shaved head, goatee, and ... a leather skirt, leaning up against his motorcycle.

Edited to show picture and website for these articles of dress. www.practikilt.com

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