A Hit for the Fancy. Source: Fun (25 April 1868): 78. Click on image to enlarge it.

Severe Old Party (to lanky Swell): — “Going to a Bal masqué, eh? Well, Chalk your head and go as a billiard cue!”
Irritated Swell: — “You might go disguised as a gentlemen; — no one would know you!”

This Fun cartoon, though hardly very successful as humor, captures all the ambiguities of Victorian understandings of the word gentleman, which increasingly moved away from its original meaning of nobleman (gentle originally meaning noble, not kind, kindly, tender, benign, or humane). The remark of the “Severe Old Party,” which he might have intended as a teasing, witty jest, prompts the target of his humor to accuse him of not being a gentleman because he does not act like a gentleman. The cartoonist labels the “Severe Old Party’s target a “swell,” a term generally used for those whose origins, class, and income are not gentlemen but who pretend or aspire to be taken as one. The great social sin of the swell was to dress in particularly noticeable, if not necessarily tasteful, ways. However, the “Irritated Swell” would seem to be what the other two men would classify as an actual gentleman, and they would do so because the conversation appears to take place in a men’s club, which would mean that all three men have approximately the same social standing. The issue here, then, is that older man wearing the baggy trousers objects to the fashionable dandy-like appearance of the “Irritated Swell.” —  George P. Landow

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Last modified 19 May 2019