Macaroni, Maccaroni, and the Macaronis

Macaroni, Maccaroni, and the Macaronis: The Macaroni. A Real Character at the Late Masquerade.
The Macaroni. A Real Character at the Late Masquerade. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before dandies, there were macaronis, or to be precise, maccaronis, as that was how it was originally spelled. But the original macaronis were not the masculine dandies made popular by the outspoken arbiter of fashion, Beau Brummell in the early 1800s, or even the effeminate macaronis that appeared near the end of the 1700s. The original macaronis had discovered the little known Italian noodle, which at the time was not just a dried flour noodle but rather a delicious tasting “mixture of flour, cheese, and butter.” They discovered it while on the Grand Tour and “had eaten macaroni in Italy with an affected zest, and returned home full of vices and follies.” These young men rejected the anglophile and his roast beef, and, instead, they embraced everything Catholic and Continental and called anything fashionable “macaroni.” The loose creation of an informal club known as the “Macaroni Club” was the result and was described by English historian Horace Walpole as “composed of all the traveled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses.” But the macaroni of the early 1700s would evolve into something entirely different by the late 1700s.

The Macaroni Painter, or Billy Dimple Sitting for his Picture, Public Domain
The Macaroni Painter, or Billy Dimple Sitting for his Picture, Public Domain

To explain how the English term for “macaroni” originated, Joseph Baretti used a dialogue between two Italians, identified as M and E, in his 1775 book Easy Phraseology:

M. “When we will say that a man is a booby, a man of gross understanding, a dolt, a fool, a vulgar fellow, we say that he is a maccherone…”
E. “Strange, that this word has so much changed of its meaning in coming from Italy to England: that in Italy it should mean a block-head, a fool; and mean in England a man fond of pompous and affected dress! …”
M. “I heard it said, that at Newmarket a club of young gentlemen made a bargain with the inn-keeper … that he should give them every day a dish of macaroni’s, … to show, that they were all travelled people … Hence it happened that the scoffers … denominated that club the macaroni-club, and each individual of it a macaroni, not knowing that this word has in Italy a very different meaning.”

The Fortunate Macaroni, Author's Collection
The Fortunate Macaroni, Author’s Collection

The Scots Magazine, an Edinburgh magazine that was replete with everything Scottish, made a similar claim as to the origins of the term “macaroni.” In their November 1772 issue they noted:

“Macaroni is, in the Italian language, a word made use of to express a compound dish made of vermicelli and other pastes [sic] … This dish was far from being universally known … when, like many other foreign fashions, it was imported by our connoscenti … as an improvement to the subscription-table at Almack’s. In time, the subscribers to those dinners became to be distinguished by the title of Macaronies, [sic] and as the meeting was composed of the younger and gayer part of our nobility and gentry, who at the same time … gave into the luxuries of eating, went equally into the extravagance of dress.”

The Unfortunate Macaroni, Author's Collection
The Unfortunate Macaroni, Author’s Collection

Whatever the original term meant, by the late 1700s the meaning changed again. “The word Macaroni changed its meaning to that of a person who exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion, and is now justly used as term of reproach to all ranks of people, indifferently, who fall into this absurdity.” Although macaronis were now being criticized, they were were still considered fascinating enough to result in a short-lived fashion, a theater magazine that ran from 1772 to 1774 and was titled The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine, or Monthly Register of the Fashions and Diversions of the Times. Over a hundred years later, The Gentlemen’s Magazine considered The Macaroni magazine to be “sufficiently scurrilous and libellous [sic]” because The Macaroni provided monthly portraits that lampooned and politically attacked celebrities or “the military macaroni, the macaroni parson, the political macaroni, the Middle Temple macaroni, etc.” The macaronis were so popular prints of them began to be sold. In fact, a shop run by Matthew and Mary Darly created and sold so many macaroni prints, it became known as “The Macaroni Print-Shop.”

Irish Peg in a Rage. "Make good the damage you dog, or I'll cut away your parsnip. Public Domain
Irish Peg in a Rage. “Make good the damage you dog, or I’ll cut away your parsnip. Public Domain

No one could compete with a macaroni’s outlandishness during his heyday. When it came to the wig-wearing members of the Macaroni club. One person wrote:

“[They] delighted in eccentric costumes; their limbs were very tightly fitted, and looked slim in consequence, while their queues were of prodigious length — ‘five pounds of hair they wear behind, the ladies to delight, O!’ says a comic song of the period; it was their proud object, indeed, to carry to the utmost every description of dissipation, to exceed in effeminacy of manner and modish novelty of dress.”

Oscar George Theodore Sonneck described them similarly, claiming the macaronis were extravagantly decked out, with “immense knots of artificial hair, ludicrously small cock-hats [!], enormous walking sticks with long tassels and jackets, waistcoats and breeches of very close cut.”

Another book described their look from head to toe:

“The hair … was dressed in an enormous toupee, with very large curls at the sides; while behind it was gathered and tied up into an enormous club, or knot … upon this an exceedingly small hat was worn, which was sometimes lifted from the head with the cane, generally very long, and decorated with extremely large silk tassels; a full white handkerchief was tied in a large bow round the neck; frills from the shirt-front projected from the top of the waistcoat, which was much shortened, reaching very little below the waist, and being without the flap-covered pockets. The coat was also short, reaching only to the hips, fitting closely, having a small turnover collar … it was edged with lace or braid, and decorated with frog-buttons; tassels, and embroidery; the breeches were tight of spotted or striped silk, with enormous bunches of strings at the knee. A watch was carried in each pocket, from which hung bunches of chains and seals: silk stocking and small shoes with little diamond buckles completed the [macaroni’s] dress.”

The Simpling Macaroni, Author's Collection
The Simpling Macaroni, Author’s Collection

The macaronis not only dressed extravagantly but also behaved risqué, spoke affectedly, and gambled recklessly. Anyone who was the opposite of them became labelled as a “boar” rather than a “bore.” But the macaroni was destined to last.

Between 1770 and 1775, the macaroni reached the pinnacle as the arbiter of fashion and perished at last from his own excesses. Critics began to characterize the macaroni as “effeminate.” For instance, The Oxford Magazine declared:

“There is a 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. I may perhaps, on some future occasion, be ample in animadversion on those lady-like gentlemen, who, despairing to be thought men, are ambitious of resembling women.”

Yankee Doodle, Public Domain
Yankee Doodle, Public Domain

The feminine macaroni’s fall from grace probably surprised no one in England but the macaroni himself. When you combined the over-the-top wigs — artificial and theatrical in nature — with foppish, fastidious, ultra-fashionable dress, and extravagant imitations of Continental tastes, an epicene macaroni was not what most Brits thought should engender British masculinity. However, the term macaroni would not soon be forgotten. British officers mocked the masculine identity of the disheveled and unsophisticated American colonists in pre-Revolutionary wars when they sang:

Yankee Doodle went to town

Riding on a pony;

He stuck a feather in his hat,

And called it macaroni.


  • Baretti, Joseph, Easy Phraseology, for the Use of Young Ladies, 1775
  • Fairholt, Frederick William, Costume in England, Vol. 1, 1885
  • Nichols, John, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 245, 1878
  • “Oscar Sonneck”, on Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Sonneck, Oscar George Theodore, Report on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia,” America,” “Yankee Doodle,” 1909
  • The Gentleman’s Magazine, July to December 1886, Vol. 261, 1886
  • The Oxford Magazine: Or, Universal Museum, January 1770
  • The Repository, Or, Treasure of Politics and Literature for 1770, Vol. 2, 1771
  • The Scots Magazine, February 1772, Vol. 34, 1772
  • Whitney, William Dwight, The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language, 1890

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