In late 18th century Britain the term ‘macaroni’ entered popular use. The term originally referred to the extravagant, modish fashion of a group of well-travelled, aristocratic, young men who met at the exclusive Almack’s club in 1764. They were dubbed ‘the Macaroni Club’, after their enthusiasm for the Italian pasta dish. ‘Macaroni’ was thereafter specifically used to describe their placing of a small tricorn hat on top of an exceedingly high, and elaborate, powdered wig. The ‘macaronis’ were also famed for wearing face-powder, rouge and tight, colourful silk and velvet suits, carrying long swords and a nosegay, and for their exaggerated use of spyglasses (small telescopes) to distinguish themselves as elite connoisseurs of culture.
By the 1770’s, however, ‘macaroni’ came to be used as a social stereotype with similar, but not identical, meaning to the term ‘dandy’ or ‘fop’. Though in Italy ‘macaroni’ meant ‘buffoon’, in Britain it became a short-hand for ‘fashion victim’. The flamboyant and immediately recognisable image of the ‘macaroni’ was opportunistically seized upon in print culture to mock men with extremely extravagant, or ‘over-fashionable’ hairstyles and clothes, or theatrical mannerisms — characteristics, which might commonly be referred to today as camp. The satirical print on this tile, for example, presents a comical caricature of an overweight older man, attempting to adopt the ‘macaroni’ fashion.
In popular culture the term ‘macaroni’ was also used disparagingly to question masculinity or ‘manliness’, or to imply sexual deviance. The ‘macaronis’ were not necessarily homosexual or men who engaged in homosexual acts. Indeed, many of the most notable ‘macaronis’, including the MP, Charles James Fox, were famed for their numerous heterosexual affairs. However, the ‘macaroni’ caricature was used to both deride those who were not ‘acceptably masculine’ and to imply homosexuality. Up to this point there had been a certain amount of tolerance to bisexuality and there was no clear concept of homosexuality as an identity — only an understanding of men engaging in, what were at that time, illegal and taboo, homosexual acts. However, during the late 18th century the idea of male homosexuality gradually began to emerge alongside an underground gay subculture, which developed tentatively around various taverns, coffee-houses and private rooms known as molly-houses. At the same time, the emerging merchant class emphasised the importance of the ‘stable family household’ to social unity. As such gender roles became more rigid. Men were given a more active, assertive role, whilst women were increasingly defined in terms of maternal functions. Anyone who strayed from these designations became the subject of satire in order to reinforce the new social norms. This included the Macaronis who were seen to ‘ape’ women’s fashion and exhibit ‘female’ characteristics.