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In Literature, what is a Fop?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A fop is a stock character who appears in English literature from the 17th and 18th centuries. Although foppish characters appear in more modern literature, they are not usually explicitly identified as “fops,” although they are treated with the same scorn and derision heaped upon historical fops. The concept of the fop has also translated to other mediums, such as film and television, and people with foppish traits may be referred to as “fops” in popular slang in some regions of the world.

The fop is always male, and obsessed with his personal appearance. He is immaculately turned out in the latest fashions, and he has his fingers on the pulse of every major fashion trend, from new hairstyles to a different cut of pants. The fop's obsession with fashion makes him somewhat suspect in the eyes of other men, and he is often referred to as a fool or as a rather vain individual. He also tends to be slightly effeminate, yet he somehow gets the girl in the end, often successfully defeating a male character with more traditionally masculine traits.

Many fops are given a variety of mannerisms and quirks. They tend to have rather affected, pompous speech, and they are known for putting on airs. Other characters may deride the fop behind his back for his self-centered attitude and attempts at wit, with his jokes often falling flat. The fop is also usually wealthy, and his family may treat him with particular indulgence; instead of working in his father's company, for example, he may be allowed to swan about the social scene.

The term “fop” entered the English language from the German in the 1400s. It was originally used to describe any sort of foolish person, and in the 1600s, it acquired the specific sense of a foolish and vain person obsessed with fashion. Other colorful terms from this period to describe foppish individuals include words like popinjay, ninny, and fashion horse.

The fop was routinely lampooned on the English stage in the 17th and 18th centuries, with actors donning ludicrously overstated costumes and plummy accents to showcase the idea that the character was a figure of mockery. Fops were also present in many English novels, especially by satirical authors. During this period, any smartly dressed young gentleman ran the risk of being called a fop, and particular scorn was reserved for older men who adopted foppish fads in an attempt to feel young again.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By indigomoth — On Feb 06, 2012

@KoiwiGal - Actually I'd put some depictions of the stereotypical "geek" as being closer to a traditional "fop", even though at first glance they seem to be quite different, they serve the same kind of role.

That type of character who pays way too much attention to superficial things that other characters don't consider to be important. The same kind of jokes about them missing the point can be made, and so forth.

On the other hand if you want to see a modern example of foppish characters, take a look at the Zoolander movie. I thought he was close to being a perfect fop and it was really well done how they managed to keep him as the main character, make fun of him throughout, but also keep the audience sympathetic towards him.

By KoiwiGal — On Feb 05, 2012

The fop is actually quite an interesting character. I know he is often targeted for ridicule, but really, I think Oscar Wilde could be considered a fop. He seemed to be quite interested in fashion and making himself look attractive (although he obviously wasn't all that interested in the ladies!).

At first I thought maybe the fop could be the modern equivalent of the "metrosexual" since they also seem to take themselves too seriously and are very concerned about appearance in contrast to "real men".

But I'm not sure it's a fair equivalent, particularly since metrosexuals aren't seen on TV or in literature all that often, and if they are they're often cast as the villain rather than the foil.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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