Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

LC:M 2013: Modish Men (?)

Well, I think, is it fashion [in] Britain, [was worth] something like £21 billion last year? I think men’s fashion is up to £9 billion. It’s vital for the economy and people don’t really realise. And when you think of £21 billion, it’s essential to our economy.

David Gandy, menswear model[i]

 

How would I sum up British [men’s] style? It’s that they seem to have a very interesting sort of dialogue with traditional English clothing, [which] makes it more enduring, [which] makes it almost less prone to the vagaries of fashion.

Toby Jones, English actor[ii]

 

Tailoring is enjoying a fashion renaissance, what are your do’s [sic] and don’ts [sic] in sartorial dressing?

I don’t myself. But I think the brilliant thing is that there is a whole new generation of men who are taking a really keen interest in tailoring and you only have to look at the rejuvenation of Savile Row to see that, both with some of the very established houses and some of the younger ones, and it’s brilliant because London is the home of menswear.

Interview with Dylan Jones, Editor of British GQ[iii]

 

LCMMuch of the domestic commentary surrounding this year’s London Collections: Men, which ran between 7 – 9 January, had a tinge of national pride, as the extracts above show: Britain, more specifically London, has become the menswear capital. These three comments, from a model, an actor and an editor, also challenge the entrenched notion that men are inherently disinterested in the clothes that they wear. Up to a point. Jingoism aside, it was interesting how little of the discussion surrounding LC:M considered the clothes. The importance of menswear to our economy, to our cities and to a younger generation of men and women, was frequently rehearsed, as though event organisers and participants felt compelled to justify the metropolis’ three-day clothing convocation. There were copious photographs on Instagram and slideshows on GQ with accompanying personal commentary, but verbal and written critiques about the modelled garments and the designers who created them were negligible.[iv] Some British newspapers featured photographs from the inaugural day of LC:M on their front page, but discussion of the event was cursory: London’s Evening Standard focused on celebrity-spotting;[v] The Guardian included excerpts from Dylan Jones’ introductory speech at Downing Street, which he made as chairman of LC:M. A brief overview of Topman Design was also provided.[vi] But both papers, along with The Daily Telegraph, seemed more interested in using the opportunity of a London fashion event launched from the prime minister’s residence to berate David Cameron for his sartorial blunders.[vii]

It’s Oh So Quiet

It seems odd that commentary on a menswear event should feature so few discussions about men’s clothing. Two reasons are frequently put forward to explain men’s ambivalence about dress: their suspicion of fashion and their aversion to gender-specific dialogues. According to Financial Times columnist Charlie Porter, ‘in the world of menswear, it has become the norm to say one is interested not in fashion but in style … Ask most men if they favour ‘fashion’ or ‘style’, and a sizeable majority would steer sharply to the latter.’[viii] Fashion is inconstant, capricious, even tyrannical, and men, in particular, are said to dislike this volatility and lack of control. Moreover, fashion is often perceived as an avowedly female preoccupation.[ix] Style, on the other hand, is timeless, fixed or changed but slowly. It provides assurance and thus, perhaps, legitimacy. The dichotomy that exists between fashion and style is apparent in Toby Young’s attempt to define men’s style (above).

Man About TownThe second reason why men are commonly said to be disinterested in dress stems from a dislike – or insecurity – in talking about their gender and different masculinities.[x] Research suggests that men do not like to be addressed en masse. They feel uncomfortable knowing that ‘other men within their age group feel the same way as them’ and they are averse to being targeted ‘in gendered terms.’[xi] This may explain why style magazines for teenage boys have never caught on; why style magazines for men (which are a relatively new product compared with their female equivalents[xii]) feature an array of sections, from health and leisure, to food, gadgets, women and cars – presumably to cater (subliminally) to different masculinities – and why television shows akin to What Not To Wear and How To Look Good Naked do not exist for men. The difficulty and discomfiture in adopting a gendered approach when addressing men is even apparent when a shared characteristic is referenced, as Philip Utz’s editorial in the recent gay-themed issue of Man About Town shows.[xiii]

But if men really are opposed to dress, whether or not they like discussing it, there would be no menswear industry. The menswear industry is presently prospering, as David Gandy points out (above), so another explanation for men’s antithetical stance on dress must be identified. Porter, in his FT article, hints at a reason: men’s attachment to the suit, an age-old article of clothing that symbolises ‘pride and certainty.’[xiv] Porter’s hunch has been explored further by art historian Anne Hollander, who has traced the evolution of the suit, and with it the ascendancy of men’s dress over female dress, from the Middle Ages.

Suits you, Sir

In brief, Hollander has argued that women’s dress has lagged behind that of men in terms of interest and innovation since the fourteenth century, the moment when male and female garb became noticeably distinct.[xv] While men’s clothing tended to accommodate, even extenuate, the contours of their physique, female clothing wrapped women in an impenetrable swathe of distorting material. Louis XVI’s endorsement of female tailors in 1675 exacerbated this sartorial divide, to women’s detriment. As women now clothed women, the influence of male dress on female raiment diminished. Women’s dress became more theatrical and evocative, with ‘ballooning skirts covered with bubbly furbelows, vast airborne hats festooned with ruffles and garlands, supported by mountains of frizzed and fluffed hair.’[xvi] In marked constrast, men’s dress became simpler. Through sartorial vogues in the English court, political upheavels in the French court and technological developments in cloth production, the suit acquired its modern form during the early years of the nineteenth century.

london-collections

The genesis of the suit was also inspired by antiquity, which drew attention to the body’s natural form through sculpture. In Britain, the arrival of the Elgin marbles showed what male bodies should be like. This led to further refinements in the fit and silhouette of the suit, which culminated in the Brummellian aesthetic of closely tailored raiment and, by 1815, the widespread adoption of trousers by men. Simultaneously, male couturiers led by Charles Worth resumed making garments for women, a craft that is continued by the likes of Adrien Sauvage, who recently launched his Menswear for Women collection.[xvii] As men once again clothed women, female dress adapted elements of the male wardrobe, including the suit. The sartorial relationship between men and women was not entirely one-sided, but it was only during the latter half of the twentieth that men began to incorporate aspects of women’s dress in their wardrobes in an overt way, chiefly through the adoption of ornamentation and brighter, contrasting colours. From Hollander’s perspective, men were never disinterested in dress and averse to fashion; rather, they have focused on adapting a style of garment that has always suited them well.

Like other excellent and simple things we cannot do without, men’s suits have lately acquired an irksome esthetic flavor, I would say an irritating perfection. Their integrated, subtle beauty is often an affront to post-modern sensibilities, to eyes and minds attuned to the jagged and turbulent climate of the late twentieth century. Current millennial impulses tend toward disintegration, in style as in politics; but men’s suits are neither post-modern nor minimalist, multicultural nor confessional – they are relentlessly modern, in the best classical sense.[xviii]

Hollander’s argument helps to explain the casual response of Dylan Jones, who was recently asked about this clothing preferences:

Being the talisman for London Collections do you feel any pressure when picking an outfit in the morning?

No. Apart from today, I usually get up in the morning and put on a blue suit and don’t worry about it until I take it off. So, no, I don’t really worry about what I wear.[xix]

It seems strange that an editor of one of Britain’s leading men’s style magazines and the chairman of LC:M would publicly imply that he doesn’t think much about his dress. If Hollander’s argument is accepted, Jones’ lack of worry is less a reflection of disinterest, rather an his assurance in his suit, which has subtly evolved over the centuries to form a garment that is classically modern. Hollander’s thesis also explain’s Beau Brummell’s retort that ‘folly is the making of me’.[xx] Rather than making light of his personal situation, Brummell was more likely remarking on the fact that he was not doing anything especially novel with his dress. Much of his sartorial inspiration came from antiquity, as he explained in Male and Female Costume.[xxi] Brummell was therefore mocking society, who rushed to embrace his sartorial style without ever really grasping its significance.

Imitation as Flattery

Parts of Hollander’s argument do not completely convince. Men’s response to dress may owe much to the sartorial superiority of the suit, but the notion that women’s dress is beholden to male garb is more difficult to establish. Hollander’s book also has some curious omissions: Savile Row is not mentioned, nor are the clothing reforms of Charles II’s court in 1666, which did much to establish the modern form of the male suit.[xxii] The Macaroni style and Zoot Suit are largely passed over, although Hollander does suggest that fringe groups, ‘the powerless’, have continually adopted modes of dressing that are as ‘remarkable and fantastic’ as they are fleeting.[xxiii] Nevertheless, her thesis goes far to penetrate the paradox of men’s attitude to dress.

menscollections-london-aw13In my previous post (Fashion’s Past & Present), I suggested that trends in men’s clothing often eschew the past. I could have said that, on the whole, they are also tend to veer away from many present and futuristic vogues. This is because in championing the suit, men have, consciously or otherwise, refrained from combining ‘different programs’ of dress. For the majority of men, ‘a single costume fulfils a single esthetic purpose, and requires a single idea to unify its visibly separate parts.’ Put simply, men do not wear ‘sweatpants with the white tuxedo jacket, as women’s fashion indicates she might.’[xxiv] The ubiquity of the suit at LC:M demonstrated its hegemony in contemporary menswear. Even the more avantgarde collections by J.W. Anderson or Topman Design used the suit, or key elements from it, for satorial structure. By adopting a holistic approach to their dress, men have tended to innovate with subtle variations, rather than changing the fundamental structure of their outfit, hence the present popularity of pocket squares and tie bars, which ornament the suit.

In my last post I also indicated that men look to other men for sartorial assurance and incorporate clothing styles from those whose characters appeal, individuals like the Duke of Windsor, Beau Brummell or (whisper it quietly) David Beckham. By contrast, women tend to focus on items of clothing and pay less attention to the wearer. I think the reason for this is that men have become accustomed to visual homogeneity among their peers. When people look alike or very similar, their character assumes greater importance. Consequently, those men with distinctive characters will tend attract greater attention and interest, which may lead to imitation.[xxv] Consider the raconteur Beau Brummell, who did not wish to be noticed because of the clothes he wore. As women’s dress has always been less uniform than that worn by men, so the clothes and not the females within them attract more attention, at least initially.

A Tailoring Tyranny?

The suit is now the staple of many male wardrobes. Perhaps inevitably, therefore, it has become one man’s symbol of ‘pride and certainty’ and another man’s symbol of sobriety and oppression. David Walliams’ observation, if not his sartorial preference, encapsulates this sense of sartorial ennui:

Menswear in general can be so boring and I’m so jealous when I see womenswear and think, ‘I’d love to wear that’, because it always just seems more inventive, but I think men are at last catching up.’[xxvi] 

Men may not like to be addressed in gendered terms and may feel uncomfortable discussing their clothing. Some men also perpetuate the notion that the significant women in their lives select what they wear, as though clothes shopping is trivial and inconsequential. This is the argument David Cameron used when his curious sartorial choices came under recent scrutiny. Cameron blamed his wife (a designer for Smythson, no less[xxvii]) for his poor sartorial judgement.[xxviii] Representatives of the menswear industry, from male models to editors, may also feel uneasy defining and defending their work, but however tongue-tied men become about their raiment, it is evident that they do take a lot of care, pride and interest in their clothing, even if some now feel that the suit is showing its age.

Hackett2


[ii] Ibid.

[v] E. Martin, L. Watling & M. Frith, ‘Ronnie and Liam rock and roll out of men’s fashion week’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 8-9.

[vi] S. Chilvers, ‘Fashionable address: No 10 stages homage to men’s fashion’, The Guardian (Monday, 8 January 2013), 12.

[vii] S. Shakespeare, ‘Cameron addresses his fashion disasters’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 17; L. Leitch, ‘My sartorial disasters? Speak to Samantha,’ The Daily Telegraph (Monday, 8 January 2013), 12.

[viii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on parade’, Life & Style: Financial Times (Saturday, 5 January 2013), 1.

[ix] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 10-11.

[x] On plural masculinities, see S. Nixon, ‘Exhibiting Masculinity’, in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. S. Hall (London, 1997), 296-314

[xi] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London, 1993),193-94; C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 214-15.

[xii] American Vogue launched in 1892, Harper’s Bazaar in 1867. Apparel Arts (later American GQ) and American Esquire launched in 1931. C. Breward, Fashion (Oxford, 2003),122.

[xiii] P. Utz, ‘Editor’s Letter’, Man About Town (Autumn/Winter 2012) , 32.

[xiv] Porter, ‘Peacocks’, 1.

[xv] Also see, A. Hollander, ‘The Modernization of Fashion’, Design Quarterly, 154 (1992), 27-33.

[xvi] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 73.

[xvii] E. McCarthy, ‘Walk like a man’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 28-29.

[xviii] Ibid., 3.

[xx] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 207.

[xxi] Ibid., 366-70.

[xxii] P. Wollen, ‘Unembraceable’, London Review of Books (19 October 1995), 42-43; P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 49-50.

[xxiii] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 11.

[xxiv] Ibid., 112.

[xxv] Ibid., 98.

[xxviii] Leitch, ‘My sartorial disasters?’, 12.

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