There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, it wenches without passion.
--The Oxford Magazine,1770
The story begins, like many, with the Grand Tour.
As related before, The Grand Tour was traditionally, a final stage in a young British man’s education before settling down to courtship, marriage, and adult life, whether that of a Peer of the Realm, or a country squire or priest. Originally, a way to maintain ties with family, friends and associates on the Continent, and to experience life under various forms of governance, the Tour had, by the 1750’s, become more cultural, and oriented towards viewing various artworks and buildings, visiting celebrated writers and thinkers, either in their homes, or at learned salons and lectures in France and Italy, and seeing first hand the sites where Classical and Biblical events had taken place, that is, Rome, Greece, and perhaps Egypt and Palestine. From there, they either took ships home, touching down in Iberia and the Biscay, or, if the family was especially wealthy or connected with the Eastern and Norden Countries, to Constantinople, up the Danube, across Central Europe, and looping back from the Netherlands or Belgium.
On coming back however, the young fellow would inevitably have a sense of letdown. London might have been grand, especially the parts rebuilt after the Great Fire, but it was a dull backwater compared to Rome. The food was terrible compared to Paris, people were ignorant compared to school, and ill-mannered compared to the Bourbon and Hapsburg courts, the weather dreary compared to Naples, the beer and wine weak and cloying compared to that of Belgium or Bordeaux, and everyone dressed like bums. He and similarly disaffected youth, flocked to Vauxhall Gardens, an early amusement park, where there were pavilions in the style of various countries with foreign restaurants to match, concerts both indoors and out-, “illuminated pictures” at night, and shady gardens good for surreptitious nookie. There, they formed an exclusive group, in the manner of dandies some half century later, played cards (especially the controversial double-down game, Pharoah), drank claret and reminisced about their travels, while dropping scraps of half-a-dozen foreign languages into their speech. There they were called, somewhat in jest, by the Italian landlord, a name often used to denote a peasant or a fool: “dumplings”, or “Maccheroni”, and by everyone else “The Macaroni Club".
At the time, buying a suit was as big an investment as buying a car, today, and most men expected to have theirs last a lifetime, at least. Tailors routinely added an inch or two ease to a man’s first suit, with the result that young men waddled around in baggy breeches and middle-aged men shoved themselves into clothing several sizes too small. Grand Tourists, taking advantage of cheap Continental labor and superior workmanship, had had a suit made overseas, which were cut to be particularly form-fitting and slim, with lighter colors prevailing, so unlike London fashions at the time. Similarly their foreign-made wigs were padded underneath to achieve a neat, arched line, as if the wearer had particularly thick hair, and a long fall of hair down the back, which could be braided into a pigtail, or simply rolled up and secured with pins and a ribbon. Since it was hard fitting a full sized hat over this style of wig, they wore the chapeau bras, a bicorne made to be carried as well as worn.
So the point might have rested, except that some men, who didn’t go through the Tour, decided that they, too, could have a suit made that at least looked like theirs. If you couldn’t get a full Macaroni suit, you could get a Macaroni styled wig. And if you couldn’t afford either...
Unfortunately, the style didn’t really translate well. Instead of looking like the 18th century version of Jimmy Cooper in Quadrophenia, faux Macaronis looked like Austin Powers. Their garish, pastel-colored coats were trimmed with extravagant buttons, lace, embroidery and fresh or artificial flowers, their stockings striped, their shoes and boots high heeled dainties. Their wigs towered with puffs of lambs’ wool and horsehair, and their hats became mere miniatures. What had been Continental suavity became a caricature of falsetto voices, simpering, mincing, and ‘delicate' gestures, a refined taste in food and drink devolved into mere finickiness. If the original Tourists played Faro for low stakes, Macaroni imitators made a point of being high-rollers. While there actually had been an English school of poetry, the Della Cruscans, centered in Florence, dedicated to sentimental and personal themes (as opposed to historic, epic, or topical events) ‘Macaronics’ were affected, arch little satires written in several languages at once.
Were they actually gay? Certainly, they were often talked about in terms of their general effeminacy and there were several gay scandals. On the other hand, a lot of them (especially those who just happened to have picked up the style on tour) got married after awhile, moved back to the country seats from whence they sprung, bought more acceptable clothing, and had children, just like everyone else in their cohort.
So, that brings us back to Yankee Doodle, a backwoods farmer’s son, wandering into town on his pony. Trying to look a bit spiffy, he puts a feather in his cap (‘coz that’s what they do, these days), sees the Colonial Army, which to him looks to him like a formidable force, and wants to join up…until he hears a cannon go off, at which he turns tail and runs home to hide in his parents’ room. You can just hear the British snickering … no threat there, they’re just a bunch of hicks and cowards! (Some versions have him showing fear at the sight of an open grave, but the idea is the same.) Little did they realize….