MENSWEAR AS A COMMUNIST STATEMENT
"Perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to do is choose a notable and joyous dress for men. There would be more joy in life (for men), if we were to accustom ourselves to use all the beautiful colours we can in fashioning our own clothes… At present we (guys) have lost all nobility of dress."
“Men’s clothing hasn’t changed in 200 years, maybe a lapel gets a little wider or a tie gets narrower from time to time. But it’s usually always the same. There is stupidity in men’s fashion. But women know who they are. They can change. Clothing is seductive for women. They get different personas by buying new clothes. But men don’t.”
“Ever since the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, men have been expected to look like sober minions of the office building.”
-Lynn Stuart Parramore
Last Saturday I had the privilege of witnessing something that most people only do once in their lifetime. I’ll give you a hint: It’s the day that most women fantasize about from the cradle to the crinoline, and is a way to tell God and the world that you are now married. That’s right – I witnessed a wedding.
Righto. What is it about weddings that are so special? Well what is so special about contemporary weddings (I speak strictly from a contemporary Anglo-Saxon perspective here) is that they very clearly reflect the gender norms of Western culture. While women depending on their age and degree of conservatism are clad in a tremendous variety of outfits, from daring backless gowns, to plunging necklines to more sober and conservative skirt/pant suits in a tremendous array of cuts and colours, what are all the gentlemen wearing? You guessed it – Suit, pants and tie. In fact, I’m surprised that nobody has pointed out the fact that you could compare 2 guys at a wedding, and aside the color of their suit to the number of buttons on their lapels, the fact is that the guys more or less look the same. Equally sober, equally drab. You will witness men of all ages, from 18 to 80, being equally clad in their staid and somber uniform of Victorian respectability, oh hai jacket, tie and long pants. You could go to any formal/semi-formal occasion in Western society e.g. The Melbourne Cup, and you’d be hard-pressed to see anything kooky or daring on the guys. (While the women on the other hand are “living it up”, in their skintight provocative clothing)
On this particular wedding I was observing, the bride was dressed in a gorgeous fairytale-esque outfit with a really tastefully provocative plunging neckline and frills all over, with an elegant crinoline to finish the outfit like cream on a cupcake. As for the groom and his groomsmen? Meh. Jackets, black tie, long pants. Nothing sensual. In fact, I didn’t notice what those guys were wearing, until I bothered to look. There’s something so nondescript and asexual about mainstream menswear that unless you’re a connoisseur of Victorian costume drama, you tend to focus far less attention on it compared to what the ladies are wearing. For all of Ellen Degeneres’ complaints about “not being noticed for what she wears”, the fact remains that at least when weddings and formal occasions of a similar nature are concerned, wearers of the black suit/tie/long pants combo of either gender will have to remain content with serving as a background ensemble to the star of the show, the bride. I don’t think it would be controversial of me to say that I fail to see how the men's clothes in Downton Abbey might be construed as "period costumes", at least when acceptable formalwear is concerned. I mean - Suit, long sleeved shirt, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and tie; isn't that the same conformist uniform of that guys have to wear to semi-formal/formal functions even today? Unless of course you want to show a little bit of flair and individuality from the endless jackets and ties and long pants, end up incurring the wrath of mainstream society and end up on somebody's "worst-dressed list".
But did you know that it wasn’t always this way? Until the Industrial Revolution, Anglo-Saxon men were not confined to dressing in an almost monochrome fashion, being restricted to one particular uniform? From the leg-flaunting tighty tights of the Regency and Valois monarchy in France to the gorgeous, form-fitting leggy Togas and Chitons of Ancient Greco-Roman society, to the 5-inch heels worn by the gentlemen of Louis XIV’s court, the socially acceptable range of modern menswear is an almost shameful parody of what men’s fashion once meant. Men were once the sexy birds of paradise, flaunting their figures and their personality through their sartorial elegence. That all changed in the West due to a wide variety of factors.
At one point, men flaunting their legs openly were considered “aristocratic”, as one common distinction between French aristocrats and peasants was the type of trousers they wore. Noblemen wore breeches, which is a combination between slacks and pantyhose, which showcase a man’s legs in the same way a knee-length pencil skirt might showcase a woman’s. Peasants on the other hand wore ankle-length trousers, and for good reason. Firstly, breeches are difficult to perform manual labour in, considering the tightness of the hose, and ankle trousers do give your legs protection from the elements, such as mud, rain grime. Secondly, they wanted to distinguish themselves from those “damned Aristos”, in as much as they could. Hence their refusal to wear knee-length pants. After Louis XVI was executed in 1793, dark suits, ties and long pants became the standardized uniform for men, and men who did not wish to incur the wrath of the Bourgeoisie, along with the possible removal of their heads, simply conformed to the GQ look and put on their suits, pants and ties like good little boys.
2. Beau Brummel
In the early 19th century, there came around a man named Beau Brummel, who started a movement called “Dandyism”. The Dandies were a group of young men who were equivalent of the feminists of today, rebelling against what Brummel described as “unnecessary and tiresome fashions”. According to Brummel, "vanity, like a peacock, is weakness for all the world to see." Brummel insisted that peacocking in fanciful cuts and colors, wearing makeup, dressing up (although Brummel himself paradoxically spent 5 hours a day getting dressed!!!) and flaunting one’s figure through provocative clothes and high heels was a “feminine” trait, and that a well-dressed man should not be noticed for his clothes. In other words, Brummel was calling to men to give up on vanity, and start dressing more soberly, monochrome and conservative, because “women want men to behave like men”.(that’s what Brummel would say if he were alive today) In a nutshell, you could say that Brummel was the first “GQ” guy. Due to Brummel’s profound eloquence, many Western men found themselves emulating his plain and somber personal style, which consisted of the standardized corporate combination of suit, tie and long pants.
3. The Industrial Revolution
Menswear took a turn for the worst in the mid-Victorian Era, when men decided that they no longer had the luxury of dressing up in gaudy colors and kooky cuts, and showing off their "vanity" through their outfits. As vanity was considered an "aristocratic" trait, many men began adopting the Republican uniform of suit, tie and long trousers. This period was known as the Great Masculine Renunciation, and it took place around the same time as Les Miserables. I actually came across an openly gay man’s blog post called Come as You Are, and in this post, he provides a profound take on how menswear came to its current state of plain and predictable buttoned-up conformity.
“Blame the Victorians for making menswear boring.
Late in the 18th century, men’s fashion took a turn for the worse. The prudish, sexually repressed Victorian age threw a wet blanket over the Dionysian debauchery of the 17th century. The reign in France of Louis XIV, with his gloriously powdered face and wig, silk stockings of cardinal red, heels, and fine plumage of velvet, ribbons, and lace, would mark the zenith of aristocratic fashion. By the time the republicans executed Louis XVI, the flush of colors, fabrics, and accoutrements had already begun giving way to a darker, more muted palette. The Industrial Revolution changed the way people dressed, as mass-produced three-piece suits became more accessible. The bourgeois class ushered in a new paradigm where men were to be defined by their commitment to industry and work, not the elaborateness of their dress. Their sobriety was a direct rebuke of the excesses of the French aristocracy.
.. Prominent British psychologist J.C. Flugel, in his book, The Psychology of Clothes, called this moment the “Great Masculine Renunciation,” when men “abandoned their claim to be considered beautiful” and “henceforth aimed at being only useful.” The gender divide in fashion became more pronounced. Men had very important things on their minds, and could no longer concern themselves with the frivolity of fashion. Women—bored, empty, and vain creatures that they were—could distract themselves with bustles and crinoline like kittens chasing a ball of yarn. Fashion was cast as a narcissistic, superficial, and ultimately, female pursuit. Men, the story goes, had opted out.
In the 20th century, the suit had established itself as the male uniform. Men milled about offices in meditations of gray, black, and brown. There was a comfort in sameness—a certain egalitarianism.”
(Excerpt from Come as You Are)
The Great Masculine Renunciation coupled with the Industrial Revolution of sober and asexual masculinity served as a double-whammy for men's clothing - From then on, the male wardrobe only get dryer and dryer, and progressively less exciting.
There you have it. You have just been enlightened as to why mainstream Anglo-Saxon men's fashion in its current state, is Dickensian at worst, and Victorian at best. And let’s face it; if you are an industrial workman, it’s a lot easier to get from one place to the other in 1.5 inch flats, as opposed to 5.1 inch stack heels.
I suppose it’s a relief in a way for some men, especially those with less than desirable bodies, to know that all the other guys are going to have to be covered up from neck to toe at formal events, hence the lack of the jealousy factor, since even the fit and toned guys will have to cover up under layers and layers of suit, tie and long pants. I know how intimidating it can be for many women to see a super-toned Victoria’s secret model in a strapless gown, which can make the average chick feel, frankly, like the piece of gum she just stepped on their shoe. But men have no such issue, and here is why: If every man, young old, hairy, skinny, chubby, had to be draped in clothes from neck to toe, and every other guy was clad in a suit, long pants and tie, how then is there a way for fit men to dress “provocatively”? You could take a super-fit and waxed fellow, and an average non-gym going Joe, and put both of them in a suit, tie and long pants. Tadaa! Guess what, the playing field has been evened. You could take two women, one superfit gym junky, and a skinny-fat couch potato, and put them in an equally revealing strapless gown. The disparity in their aesthetics will be strikingly obvious. However, take two blokes; one super-fit Calvin Klein model, and one regular average Joe, and put them in a dark suit, tie and long pants. You can’t tell who’s fitter than the other, or at least, the disparity between their aesthetics will be evened out. In a sense, modern menswear has been designed to make men “even” in all senses of the word. It drags beautifully chiselled men down to the level of their Average Joe counterparts, and hides every bit of imperfection a man’s body could have. Hence, formal events are a relief to guys who haven’t been hitting the gym, or shaving their pits, since even the beautiful boys will have to cover up, which as I’ve said, evens the playing field in terms of aesthetics. Even the gay fashion guru Tim Gunn, when asked if there are any other appropriate options besides a black jacket and tie for men in formal events, replied, "No, and why would you want any other options? You're just going to look like you're tryint too hard." You see, that's another problem that goes on in the male community - The fear of looking like a "try hard"! Well I'll tell you something, boys. I'm a try hard and damned proud of it. I bet whenever there's a paralympic event where you have these guys without legs playing basketball, there's also a bunch of guys sitting in a bar glugging down their beer sneering, "heheheh, try hard try hard". Sickening.
Perhaps that is why some fellows so vehemently oppose the idea of men breaking out of the current state of Victorian uniformity. Perhaps the problem lies not so much with the guys who don’t conform to rigidly defined super-conservative fashion that men are bound to, but rather with some of the men who do. Perhaps the guys who oppose (like Stelios Phili of GQ) would do well to consider hitting the gym and getting a body as svelte as Jared Leto’s as opposed to sitting behind their computers, munching on chips while stewing in their own their Tall Poppy juices. Hence the reason why menswear is in a sense, a communist statement. Those who don’t “play the game”, and “dress like the rest” are bound to receive flack for their individuality. Unlike women, who will bitch and sneer at their friends' outfits behind closed doors, men are at greater liberty to express their opinions in public, and phrases such as "dude you look so gay in that" are enough to cow most men into submission. Western men's clothing norms, in other words, is like hardcore communism. It preys on fear. The fear of looking "gay", and being punished (ostracized) by your fellow man. Keep your head low, don't stand out, look like the fellow next to you, and you won't be punished for insubordination.
But it’s not just the men. There are also many women (especially insecure young women) who might feel threatened by a man emancipating his role as uniformed and buttoned-up Don Draper, and try being abit adventurous and daring with his clothes. The following quotes from three different young women say more than intended:
“Yes men don't have the range and it's far more conservative but I like a well-dressed, conservative yet stylishly dressed man. I think the sexiest thing about men is their masculinity and so I prefer in male clothing that it stays within the norm boundaries of their available clothing. We're the pretty ones so we get the pretty stuff.”
“A man with his cleavage out (even reading that feels wrong, doesn’t it?) is revealing a little too much of himself — physically and personally. He’s a bit ‘Hey, baby! Look what I’ve got!’ And that’s just naff. Yes, be proud of your amazing physique, but be subtle about it. This ‘issue’ with the heavage isn’t a jealousy one (although there is something galling about a man filling a vest top better than you) — it’s about our traditional roles. As I said, please make yourselves look gorgeous, men, but don’t be the high maintenance one in the couple.”
“However, leave the form-fitting gear to us ladies and our obscenely expensive Lululemon yoga pants (you know, the ones that make our butts look so cute). We do not need to see you in all your spandex glory at the gym.
Also? Sleeves. Sleeves are good. Granted, I can’t work out in anything but a tank top, so this may sound hypocritical, but I prefer a guy with a little upper-arm modesty at the gym. If you’re snapping up tank tops at the store or snipping the sleeves off your tees, that’s your prerogative, but in my mind, the muscle tee look has become synonymous with the bulked-up guys on Jersey Shore and the term “juiceheads”.
To quote one of my favourite bloggers Lucy83,
“It seems like those women are hostile out of jealousy or a feeling of inadequacy. I've heard of such responses several times. Perhaps they feel if men are more beautiful than they are then they have nothing going for them. Perhaps those are the kind of women who rely entirely on their feminine looks to get male attention. For such people, the thought of men becoming as beautiful or even more beautiful (in a feminine way) will be very scary.
My advice to them is: grow up. There's more to being valuable than just being physically attractive. And it's a myth that men only value beauty in women. Besides, if beauty is all you offer, then don't complain if you get treated like a mindless accessory.
It's also very cynical to deny men the right to emancipate their gender role while enjoying the freedom to do traditionally masculine things for yourself. After all, it was men who created women's liberation. Might not be a comforting thing to admit but that doesn't make it less true.”
“Some women have been conditioned to rely on their looks and sex appeal to get them through life. (see pic) When confronted with the possibility that a man might have this too, they feel like they're losing everything that makes them female and they're left with nothing.
When I hear women complain that men can't handle them having a more successful career, I wonder what their reaction would be if men started winning beauty contests on an even playing field and getting all the attention for their looks. Equality goes both ways.”
And I absolutely agree with Lucy. If women want equality, then they should also extend the same thing to us guys. They get positions in high office, and we get to wear fun, flamboyant and sassy clothes, and play the beauty game with them on an even playing field. Equality goes both ways.
I think that contrary to popular belief, most young guys are actually more prudish than most young women. I mean look at it this way - When we're talking about modern, young women at least, most of them won't bat an eyelid about slipping on a strapless/sleeveless plunging neckline gown. But men on the other hand, well men - Most young men (heterosexual ones at least) will not be caught DEAD showing the same amount of skin that a woman shows in a formal strapless gown, even in casual situations. (Our male friends generally favor T-shirts and jeans to tank tops and short shorts) In fact, I've even heard guys say that THIS look (pic) is too "daring" and "show-offy", and that they would not dare to walk around with that amount of skin showing. "Daring and show-offy"? It's just a teeny bit of chest! That's still FAR less skin than most young women are showing at formal events! Furthermore, the loose blazer sort of "mars" the accentuation of the V-taper (the male equivalent of the hourglass figure). How is it "show-offy"? It shows NOTHING! No arm, no leg, no back "I don't want to look gay" is apparently the reason why men seem so frightened of body-conscious clothing. But I sometimes wonder - Are men less comfortable in their own skin than wimmen?But why should boys like me be punished for the crimes of the Homer Simpsons of the Western world? Just because most guys don’t eat right and shave their pits, doesn’t mean that WE (beautiful men like me) have to pay for THEIR crime by covering up our toned bodies and shaved underarms under layers and layers of clothing, while the women strut their stuff in daring cocktail dresses and backless gowns. You know what? I think the fact that the male obesity rate keeps rising each year is hardly anything surprising. Men don’t have any incentive to take care of their bodies, the reason being they have no occasion to flaunt them. Men don’t have any incentive to be beautiful, the reason being they have no occasion to flaunt their physical beauty.Unlike our more sexually liberated sisters, who are equipped with backless gowns and cocktail dresses at their sartorial disposal, men are notorious for not training their back muscles. (e.g. lats) The reason for this I suspect, is because they see little incentive in training a muscle that is going to be covered up anyway, since men's clothes do not showcase the male body to a similar degree as the female body. Unless we're talking tank tops, or any other super-casual clothing, I can't think of any "dressy" men's clothes that showcases the angles and geometry of the male body to a similar extent as say, a tailored backless gown showcasing the angles and geometry of the female form. This gives men little incentive to work out and show off their bodies, unless of course it's for athletic purposes. If you ask me, the way to give incentive to men to work out and be healthy is by providing more fashion options for them, especially more sensuous, skin-baring flamboyant ones, and changing the Western ideal of masculinity altogether from a "rugged, pencil-straight buttoned-up corporate man" to a more "flamboyant, provocatively dressed Bruno type" (albeit a well-built version). Encourage men to stop hiding behind their jackets and ties, and start flaunting a bit more skin, just as women do. Give the ladies a break; for a change, pin up ads of handsome, provocatively dressed muscle men in men's magazines like GQ/FHM, and watch just how fast men start hitting the gym. Trust me. It will work. You see, men are generally are inspired by what they see in their men's mags. And if it's an overweight CEO in a suit and tie that's the paradigm of masculinity, then an overweight CEO in a suit and tie is what they're going to strive to be. But if it's a flamboyantly dressed well-built man (the male equivalent of a well-built woman in a plunging neckline gown), then it's going to be a different story. (Of course, despite their gay readership, FHM and GQ are predominantly "straight man" magazines. "Straight" men's magazines tend to focus less attention on a man's actual physical appearance (e.g. his body), and more on his social status, and you can be an overweight/skinny CEO and still make it to the cover of GQ. They'll just cover your flab up with a suit and tie, and make you stand like a pimp next to a bunch of skimpily clad women, in order to give you that "rugged, macho image". It's the other extreme altogether in predominantly "gay man" magazines (such as DNA), which literally FLOOD their pages with well-built muscle-men in provocative clothing, which is why you see gay men generally being much more body-conscious than straight males, and more likely to be gym junkies) I know it sounds awfully crool, but I'm afraid the only way men are ever going to start wanting to hit the gym is by shoving their faces with images of hunky muscle jocks in skintight revealing clothing, the same way Vogue/Cosmopolitan/modern bridal magazines does to women. =/ I know some people might say that the answer does not lie in making men go through what women go through in patriarchal society. It's very controversial, and you don't necessarily have to agree with me, but that's how I strongly feel.
Anyway, I am wearing a Greek Toga to my wedding, and anybody who wants to criticize me for it can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I might entertain your criticism, then again I might not. We'll just have to see how bored I am.
Be sexy, boys!