At the end of the eighteenth century ‘there occurred one of the most remarkable events in the whole history of dress, one under the influence of which we are still living, one, moreover, which has attracted far less attention than it deserves: men gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and thereby making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts. Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation.’ Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful.‘[i]
To Be, Or Not To Be Trendy
For the past seventy years this short paragraph in John Flügel’s Psychology of Clothes has been the orthodox view on men’s dress. So ingrained is the idea that men are dowdy dressers and generally disinterested in their appearance that editors of men’s style magazines continue to make moderately sexist puns and recycle stereotypical notions of manliness, which include observations on eating, drinking, sleeping and sport, to normalise their clothing commentaries or at least present them in a non-emasculating form. The Lads’ Mag may have died, but vestiges of its smut and slavish adherence to sport linger in many male-focused publications. Last month, in a special men’s fashion edition of their weekend magazine, The Guardian included a photo shoot of four sports commentators who had each received a style make-over. The television pundits wore ready-to-wear suits by Paul Smith, Thom Sweeney and Gieves & Hawkes, with accessories by Lanvin, Richard James and Marwood. The subtext seemed to be that if ITV‘s front man Adrian Chiles – who jokes about Scrabble and Morecombe & Wise in his accompanying interview – can wear a Daks suit, any man could, or should at least consider the possibility.[ii]
Another article in the issue purported to offer men answers to ‘2014’s key style conundrums’. For such an onerous undertaking, the editor of UK Esquire, Alex Blimes, was drafted in. To reassure anxious male readers, Blimes confessed that he was ‘not a trendy’.[iii] To reinforce the point, references to Top Gear, the Ninetendo Wii, golf and a swipe at Britain’s political leaders, whom Blimes deemed to be ‘a bunch of middle-management dorks’, were dispersed liberally throughout his writing. The comments were presumably the journalistic equivalent of climbing jugs on an abseiling wall; they supported the sartorially stupefied men, brave enough to consider Blimes’ clothing advice, through to the article’s end. The appearance of a new digital television channel, Movies 4 Men, which mainly broadcasts war films and westerns, would suggest that Blimes’ approach was perceptive and popular, provided, that is, men’s attentions were not distracted from the article by one of the channel’s films.
Academic studies have also perpetuated Flügel’s theory of Masculine Renunciation and the state of mind it reflects, if inadvertently. Recent books on the dandy revival, which appear to show that men are becoming more confident with colour and more cognisant of their clothed silhouette, have lauded the creativity and audacity of gents who seek to channel a Brummelian or Beatonesque aesthetic, but in so doing they invariably highlight the novelty and marginal status of these pioneering peacocks, for they remain exceptions that highlight the sober sartorialism of the majority of men, who remain wedded to the suit in its corporate and casual forms.[iv]
Keeping The Man Down
It is little wonder, then, that men remain relatively easy prey for television executives looking for novel ways to market popular programme formats. In the most recent post on his website, Mark Simpson, who is credited with coining the term ‘metrosexual’, has criticised the ‘brutal reductiveness’ of The Island, a reality television series hosted by ‘survival porn star’ Bear Grylls (‘Bare Thrills’), in which thirteen ‘ordinary’ British men try to survive on a deserted island.[v] Responding to comments that the show was sexist for not including women, Channel 4‘s Chief Creative Officer, Jay Hunt, revealed the series was conceived to be a ‘real test of modern masculinity.’ Simpson is probably right to suggest that this facile comment would be rapidly and roundly condemned if it had been directed at women, but against men it seems vaguely acceptable, if not altogether fun. The problem with this is neatly summarised by Simpson:
[The programme] perpetuates the notion that masculinity is one phallic thing only, and that this needs to be kept up, and hard.
The premise of The Island is fatuous, but television’s inquiry into modern masculinity is timely, for despite the tenor of fashion commentary and the preponderance of sartorially stilted men, it does seem that some of our sex are no longer content with being merely ‘useful’ and want to demonstrate that they can be ‘beautiful’. In previous articles I have commented on the popularity of the male clutch bag, which I suggested could be a form of handicapping, to demonstrate socio-economic strength through imposed sartorial hardship. I have also commented on the Congolese Sapeurs, who wear bold and contrasting colours to demonstrate their resilience in the face of life’s problems as much to convey their character, and the coterie of men in East London who wear their shirts buttoned up sans tie.
If You’ve Got, Flaunt It!
This month, fashion commentators have been fervently charting the rise of men’s shorts, the hems of which are now high above the knee and ‘thigh-flaunting’. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s columnist David Colman, ‘if men’s shirts were a glacier in Greenland, scientists would be freaking out.’[vi] The reportage is reminiscent of that from 2011, when hybrid cowboy boots with points up to 35 inches long spawned a new craze among Mexican men.[vii] The boots’ points, which were made from plastic foam for $34 or for free from garden hose, resembled those worn by the medieval glitterati. William II of England, who reigned between 1087 and 1109, wore shoes so pointy they were likened to scorpion’s tails. The trend for feet-extending footwear became so great that Philip IV of France issued an injunction that made shoe length, or height, commensurate to social standing; the more important you were, the bigger your point.[viii]
If the emphasis on attitude and size in modern men’s appearance threatens to undermine Mark Simpson’s observation that masculinity is not ‘one phallic thing only’, the re-appearance of the hairy-chested man could scupper it entirely. Henry Cavill’s casting as the first hairy-chested Superman in the latest from the film franchise, Man of Iron (and note the title), and Zac Efron’s triumph in the category of Best Shirtless Performance at MTV‘s Movie Awards, beating off the hairless Chris Hemsworth, Leonardo di Caprio and Sam Claflin (Jennifer Anniston was also on the short list), seems to suggest there is a move, however subconscious, to dichotomise the sexes. A significant minority of men from around the world, at different ages, in different earning brackets and from different cultures, are simultaneously asserting their masculinity.
If true, one might speculate why men are demonstrating their distinction through hackneyed stereotypes, the like of which are being put to the test in Bear Gryll’s The Island. The answer is perhaps as simple as it is unsatisfying. The ideas of size, strength and stoicism, however reductionist, are generally used as a crude and quick means of classifying the male sex, so it is not surprising that this same litmus test is being harnessed by men to demonstrate their vitality and relevance.
A Question of Crisis
The chronological coincidence of these masculine-showcasing spurts suggests there might be a common sociological cause. Is the desire to be ‘beautiful’, rather than merely ‘useful’, a response to a ‘crisis of masculinity’? The term has been much bandied about since the economic downturn of 2008, and I have used it several times in my online and print articles, but depending on the commentator you read, men have been in a state of ‘crisis’ since the 1970s, when the term first gained traction.[ix] Mark Simpson says the notion of ‘crisis’ is really about self-projection. He argues that the idea of ‘crisis’ reveals more about the investigator’s uneasy feelings about masculinities than it does those of the men being investigated. I’m not so sure. The more I think about recent menswear trends, the more I think the myriad masculinities that exist share a common socio-economic basis. This would explain why seismic economic shifts, whether good or bad, engender correspondingly significant changes in self-perception and self-presentation – inevitably, I am thinking of Norbert Elias’ comments on opportunities for individualisation that are most apparent at key developmental stages in society. ‘Crisis’ is certainly not the most accurate word for the changes men are currently experiencing, although for its headline-grabbing abilities, it will probably long remain in use.
One of the main reasons why ‘crisis’ fails as a descriptor, and why Mark Simpson is right to decry the reductionism of The Island, is because things are simply not this simple (even if I have simplified things to write c.1,000 words as opposed to c.10,000 words). For alongside the appearance of a more assertive masculinity (à la Henry Cavill and Zac Efron), which has been much reported and generally viewed as a response to the ‘Banking Crisis’ and ‘The End of Men’ debates that have proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic, there is, very broadly but no less definitively, a subtler and softer masculinity typified by the likes of Andrew Garfield, who is wooing audiences in The Amazing Spider-Man films. And he is not alone. It is interesting to note how the majority of winners in British GQ‘s best-dressed lists from the past five years have been lead actors in science-fiction films, with Twilight star Robert Pattinson dominating for consecutive years. Last year, YouTube also had a ‘Geek Week’ to coincide with the launch of Kick Ass 2. The varied experiences of men and the myriad masculinities that now exist, perhaps largely as ‘sub-groups’ within the two broad masculine distinctions I have drawn, means the topic of manliness has become ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, to quote Winston Churchill, a representative of a particularly pugnacious sort of masculinity. It is therefore easier to comment than to conclude. But at least to bring my musings to an end, I wonder if it could be said that ‘a remarkable change occurred in the first half of the twenty-first when man abandoned his claim to be considered merely useful. He henceforth aimed at being more beautiful, a beauty all the more remarkable because it was more than skin deep. Sartorially and socially, this event has surely the right to be considered as ‘The Great Masculine Revival.’
[i] J.C. Flügel, The Psychology of Clothes (London, 1930), 110-11.
[ii] J. Cartner-Morley, ‘Get your kit on’, Guardian Weekend (12 April, 2014), 21-31.
[iii] A. Blimes, ‘What every man should know’, Guardian Weekend (12 April, 2014), 51-57.
[iv] Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion, ed. K. Irwin & L.A. Brewer (New Haven & London, 2013); G.A. Ross, The Day of the Peacock: Style for Men 1963-1973 (London, 2011).
[vi] D. Colman, ‘A New Length for Men’s Shorts’, The Wall Street Journal (9 May, 2014). http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304831304579546312161483266; C. Porter, ‘A shorts story’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (24/25 May, 2014), 4.
[vii] O.R. Rodriguez, Matehuala, Mexico’s Mutant Pointy Boots Create A Style Craze, Huffington Post (15 May, 2011). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/16/mexico-pointy-boots_n_862617.html#s279330. Accessed: 24 May, 2014.
[viii] L. Vass & M. Molnár, Handmade Shoes for Men (Cologne, 1999), 56.
[ix] J. Tosh, ‘The making of manhood and the uses of history’, in his Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London, 2005), 19.