Male Vanity in 1903: Socially Acceptable or Repulsive?

Male Vanity - 1903

by Rivka Willick on November 4, 2010

in Etiquette From The Past

The Image of the modern man seems to be in constant flux.  Terms like ‘metro-sexual’, and ‘Alfa male’ go in and out of style like the latest fashions.  In the April 1903 Broadway Magazine article “Are Men as Vain as Women?” by Elizabeth Edwards the question of male vanity is confronted head on. The following article is based on many of the ideas in the Ms. Edward’s article.  I made comments along the way and hope you’ll add to my insights.

“In these days of modern thought, it is quite clear that vanity is no longer the sole pervue of women.  It can be said that men now commit the crime of vanity, although they are more likely to be fined for a misdemeanor than a felony.”

The urban, cosmopolitan man was a very new concept in 1903 America.  The rugged frontier man like Davy Crocket, the intellectual man like Woodrow Wilson, and the innovative business man like Thomas Edison or John D. Rockefeller were acceptable male role models:


“Today, in 1903, the most admired young American male type is best drawn by Charles Dana Gibson. This is a well-built, broad-shouldered fellow with clear cut features and palpitating with self- confidence.  He is not afraid to address or confront anyone who comes before him, whether it be man, saint, devil, or even a woman.

Gibson’s perfect man is similar to other characters seen in literature and stage in that they resemble the male artist’s model.  There is nothing more contemptible then the male artist’s model.  There are so many channels for a livelihood for a healthy young man, why waste quality material on male models and chorus men?”

Political correctness was not in style.  It wasn’t even considered.  Many articles of this period are blunt and express opinions in a no-holds-barred approach.  A man who spent time improving his appearance or spent too much money on his wardrobe was often poked fun of in stories and stage.

“I am happy to report that this Gibson type is rarely found in real life; unfortunately many young men now strive to reach this image and this I assert is indeed male vanity. Young men believe this stilted style pleases women and impresses men.

Affectation is unattractive in men as much as in women.  The fellow who works hard to cultivate a stern and unyielding stare is no different than the woman who practices a baby-like pout. This artificial expression is supposed to convey the sense that he is world weary and concerned with affairs of state, but will be inflexible once his mind is set.  In reality great men never need to practice an expression, but have a genuine look upon their faces at all times.”

The American male was expected to be different from his European counterparts.  An English man with manners was considered gallant and a Frenchman knowledgeable about art and music was considered refined.  An American man who behaved in this manner was suspect of putting on airs or something worse.

“An American man who asserts himself as a ‘man of the world’ is a bit of a fraud.  A European man who travels and explores various cultures is rightly described as such, but an American, especially a New Yorker, is better served earning money.”

Mass production had a major effect on many attitudes and behaviors. A middleclass man who wore handmade tailored suits might be accused of putting on airs or being ‘old fashioned’.

“I must also take a moment to speak about the pride some men take in their clothes. A clean and well-dressed man deserves admiration, but an overdressed fellow is often served large portions of giggles and insults behind his back.  The new abundance of ready-made clothing makes it easy for most men to dress attractively avoiding excesses that were common just 20 or 30 years ago.”

Back in the early 1900’s fashion and behavior was shaped and commented upon by trend setting magazines, just like today.  The ‘fop’ or ‘dandy’, (a silly male character who is obsessed with his appearance), was a popular target.

“The most offensive type of vanity men display is their imagined irresistibility to woman. The most humorous aspect of this distasteful quality is the fact that the men most likely to believe themselves irresistible are often the least attractive. Of course there are always some girls willing to go out with such a fop, but then again, this type of girl would go out with almost anyone.

This ever increasing trend of male vanity is repulsive and although there are times in business and social gatherings when a man is encouraged to behave in the aforementioned manner, for the most part, male vanity should be avoided.”

As I wrote this article, I wondered if the ‘vain man’ has become acceptable and the rugged frontier type has become obsolete.  Are affectations and false personas OK in some situations?  I live just outside of New York, so I have to ask the question; Is money making the most attractive aspect of the American Man, or any man?  Help me keep the discussion going.  Let me know what you think.

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