November 12, 2015
It’s Raining Menswear
BY JOSHUA ROTHMAN
Joshua Rothman is The New Yorker’s archive editor. He is also a frequent contributor to newyorker.com, where he writes a blog about books and ideas.
Earlier this fall, Antonio Banderas, a.k.a. Zorro, began taking classes in menswear design at Central Saint Martins, the renowned London fashion school. In an interview with the school’s student-run Web site and magazine, Banderas explained that he wanted to start his own menswear line; his particular ambition was to bring back the cape. Capes for men, he said, have “incredible possibilities”:
There are all these varieties of capes. For example, in the time of Charles the Third in Spain, capes were an instrument to kill—and to cover yourself. People used to do this [makes Zorro move] and nobody would know who you were. So they used to cut the capes and do these short capes, because it was forbidden by the law to wear long capes at night.… In Spain there are still places where there are clubs of people who love to wear capes. The shape has almost the same shape as the capote for bullfighting, in beautiful pink silk, with yellow or blue in the back.
“For me, it’s actually easier than a coat,” he concluded. “You walk into a place and you just BOOM! throw it off.”
How plausible is it that, a few years from now, men on the streets of New York will be wearing capes designed by Antonio Banderas? The answer is “very”; it’s easy to name the combination of factors—heritage marketing, “Game of Thrones,” Kanye—that could make it happen. It takes only a little imagination to propose that, during the Great Cape Revival of 2019, capotes will be worn with sneakers and tights as a way of giving the fading “athleisure” trend (hoodies, T-shirts, sweatpants) a little seventeenth-century swagger. This won’t seem strange; instead, it will be an evolutionary development from the Great Poncho Revival of 2016.
These days, although ordinary men still dress in ordinary ways, “menswear”—the Internet-centric, metropolitan, yuppie style—keeps getting riskier. Hardcore menswear enthusiasts have found themselves dressing in costume-like clothes; although they look great in their tweedy sport coats and pocket squares, asymmetrical hoodies and slim-cut jogging pants, and military jackets layered over other, lighter military jackets, they also look like they’re in town for a menswear-themed Comic-Con. Faced with these examples, I’ve found myself taking stock of the movement that has, for the past decade, more or less covertly reshaped the way men dress. Have we reached peak menswear?
If one had to pick the date on or about which men’s clothing changed, October, 2010, could be a sensible choice. That’s when The Hairpin published an article, by Mary H. K. Choi, called “All Dudes Learned How to Dress and It Sucks.” “There must have been some clandestine colloquium workshop situation where all the dudes in all the land shucked to skivvies and got sized for their perfect pair of Uniqlo jeans and nobody said ‘no homo,’ not even one time,” Choi wrote. The upside of this change was that, all of a sudden, men on the subway looked “SO GODDAMN GOOD”; the downside was that it was now impossible to guess anything about a man from his clothes. “I have ZERO idea what dude is who right now,” Choi concluded.
There wasn’t, unfortunately, a clandestine colloquium, but there was “menswear,” a conversation that began online, in the early aughts, largely on Internet forums devoted to men’s fashion. Each forum catered to a slightly different kind of man. On Ask Andy About Clothes, old prepsters—“trads”—talked about sack suits; on Superfuture, kids who wanted to look like Tetsuo, from “Akira,” compared the fades on their Japanese denim. Users on Styleforum obsessed over heritage and craft, discussing labels like Incotex, Brioni, Filson, and Schott, while StyleZeitgeist was more avant-garde, with an emphasis on Rick Owens.
In those heady days, debates raged over fundamental questions: whether black suits are ever appropriate at non-funeral events (they’re not), whether stocky guys can pull off the “goth ninja” look (undecided), and whether jeans should “stack” at the hem or get cuffed (I prefer stacks). All of the “fora” had online marketplaces where men from around the world bought and sold clothes, and, slowly, a consensus emerged about the “grail” items each kind of man must own: Alden cordovan wingtips to go with your multipocked Engineered Garments “Bedford” blazer; flannel shirts from the Japanese brand Flat Head to wear with your Iron Heart or Sugar Cane denim; ties from Drake’s, sport coats from Isaia; a Rick Owens “Exploder” jacket paired with boots from Guidi. Back then, menswear was slightly underground. You would recognize fellow travellers on the street, but not often.
Around 2010, however, a number of factors combined to make menswear suddenly mainstream. More men started writing menswear blogs, while Tumblr created a menswear tag—“#menswear”—which allowed fashionable people who had missed out on menswear culture to discover it. At the same time, big fashion retailers began selling menswear style. Most prominently, J. Crew began to feature “grail” items in its stores, as part of a program it called “In Good Company.” (Nick Paumgarten’s 2010 profile of the company’s C.E.O., Mickey Drexler, finds him in Maine, sourcing moccasins from Quoddy.) One by one, the strands of men’s fashion emphasized by menswear—heritage Americana, denim fetishism, Ivy League traditionalism, Italian style, with its “sprezzatura,” or relaxed, studied flair—became popularized. Even the “goth ninja” look has achieved some currency, thanks to Kanye, who has made it his own. Today, on any given city block, you’ll see a man whose outfit contains a hint of menswear: a Filson bag; a narrow, high trouser hem; suede shoes with colored laces; a trim blazer in Italian azure; a waxed jacket or indigo shirt with an ironically large number of pockets. You’ll also see men who are desperate to keep their edge; they’re “dressed by the internet,” in crowded ensembles that are designed to be reblogged.
Looking back, it’s obvious that menswear wasn’t just about fashion. In his new book, “True Style,” the fashion writer G. Bruce Boyer, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of men’s clothing, puts today’s menswear culture in historical perspective. The modern male uniform, Boyer writes, has its roots in the “Great Renunciation” of the nineteenth century, when men “gave up silks and satins, embroidered coats and powdered wigs and silver-buckled shoes in favor of woolen suits simply cut and soberly colored.” That movement “away from gorgeousness and toward simplicity” was political: men were adopting a uniform with “ties to liberal democracy.” (Boyer quotes the fashion historian David Kuchta, who writes that modern men seek to communicate “masculine conceptions of industry and frugality” with their clothes.) Women, the thinking goes, have renounced gorgeousness to a lesser degree, because they can still wear beautiful, aristocratic fabrics, like velvet, without apology; men, by contrast, have been forced to “suppress [their] poetic souls and hide [their] light under a bushel of dreary worsted.”
From this perspective, menswear culture is part of a larger, class-centric project, in which men seek ways to be gorgeous, poetic, and aristocratic on the sly, without betraying the egalitarian ideals that, at least in theory, define modern manhood. “True Style” provides an overview of their efforts: democratic men can borrow gorgeousness from above or below, luxuriating not in beauty, per se, but in work-based virtues such as “craftsmanship.” Boyer alternates between discussions of “elite” style (one early chapter recommends ascots) and what he calls “prole” clothing, such as denim and work boots. In this way, he evokes the classic male-style dilemma: men must always choose between overdressing or underdressing, and, consequently, between looking aspirationally hoity-toity or disingenuously rebellious. This puts into relief one of #menswear’s central innovations: dressed-down clothes executed luxuriously—like an artfully distressed Japanese chambray work shirt—which assert a classless identity that is, conveniently, also a signifier of class. Skeptics will say that menswear merely created a new way for rich people to dress. A more charitable view holds that menswear has undermined the outmoded class hierarchy of men’s fashion, which forced men either to dress like “the man” or to stick it to him, sartorially speaking.
Boyer is writing for men who care about clothes; they, of course, are in the minority. In “Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity,” the sociologist Erynn Masi de Casanova explores some of the same ideas from the perspective of men whose wives or girlfriends choose their wardrobes. The book is based on interviews with a diverse group of around seventy white-collar men in New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. These guys, who have never heard of “#menswear,” try not to think too much about what they wear. Still, Masi de Casanova argues, that’s a meaningful decision: through choosing not to care about fashion, these men are exercising “the privilege of hegemonic masculinity”—they’re saying, in effect, that it doesn’t matter what they look like, and implying that they’ve arrived at their positions in life through hard work, rather than because of their social class. Dressing like a schlub, in other words, can be a form or expression of power.
Correspondingly, Masi de Casanova finds that the gay and men of color in her sample are more comfortable than the straight white men when it comes to talking and thinking about clothes and fashion (perhaps, she suggests, because they’re already judged by how they look). They’re also more comfortable using the word “fashion”—straight white men prefer the more masculine “style”—and are more willing to refer to themselves as “metrosexual.” (The fact that people still say “metrosexual” may be the biggest surprise in “Buttoned Up.”) Hegemonically masculine men, meanwhile, don’t look kindly upon those who relinquish the privilege of unfashionableness: come into work wearing a too-cool shirt, and your unhip coworkers will shame you. In those environments, the #menswear uniform—short blazer, trim shirt, skinny jeans, double-monks, no socks—would be completely beyond the pale.
“Buttoned Up” doesn’t address menswear culture. But, reading it, it’s hard not to notice that menswear was, among other things, an attempt to rethink “white” identity. In its early days, this rethinking was subtle: in the reclamation of styles and brands associated with American and English “heritage” and “tradition,” menswear enthusiasts edged away from the generic, creeping bro-ness that characterized so much men’s clothing in the nineteen-nineties (Abercrombie & Fitch, Polo Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic). Instead, these men drew on touchstones in Anglo-American history and culture. For many men, it was more appealing to dress like Steve McQueen than to dress like a frat guy. That wasn’t just because McQueen looked better. It was because the culture of the frat guy was so clearly the product of marketing; he was, ultimately, a creature of the mall.
Over time, this simple idea—essentially, don’t dress like a bro—took some strange turns. Initially, the exploration of Anglo-American sartorial traditions was democratizing and fun; it encouraged everyone, no matter their background, to claim a piece of “heritage.” (It allowed me, for example—the descendent of Eastern European Jews and Chinese immigrants—to plausibly dress like an Englishman on the moors.) Inevitably, though, it also resulted in the proliferation of historical costumes. Walk into a menswear boutique and you’ll find yourself asking questions like: Do I prefer Cary Grant or Sean Connery? The First World War or Vietnam? The Army or the Navy? The woods or the West? One effect of menswear’s search for authenticity, in short, has been an outsize and somewhat embarrassing nostalgia. Today, a man’s outfit is likely to suggest that he’d be happier if he were anywhere other than where he is—sailing off Nantucket, say, J.F.K.-style, instead of working in an office in 2015.
Perhaps inevitably, therefore, menswear culture has come to regard race from a postmodern perspective. In recent years, for example, menswear enthusiasts have grown fascinated by Italian style; men like the late Gianni Agnelli, who was president of Fiat and the richest man in Italy, have become style icons. At the same time, however, the bible of the menswear movement, a book called “Fuck Yeah Menswear,” by Kevin Burrows and Lawrence Schlossman, is written almost entirely in a rap-like lingo derived from Kanye’s tweets; in the back, it features a fake Japanese men’s-style magazine—a nod to menswear culture’s obsession with Japanese re-interpretations of Western styles. On the one hand, the caricature of a super-cool menswear kid is now someone who dresses like Marcello Mastroianni while writing raps about his outfit on his Tumblr. But, on the other, menswear is growing more flexible, and opening up to ideas and attitudes rooted in African-American and gay style. (Many of the major menswear Web sites, like Four Pins, which is edited by Schlossman, feel allied in spirit with so-called streetwear sites, such as Hypebeast.) It seems as though, having searched for an authentic way of dressing “like a man,” the men of menswear have discovered that nothing along those lines exists. It’s costumes all the way down: trad, woodsman, cowboy, sailor, biker, banker, goth ninja.
As a man who enjoys clothes, I often find the postmodern nature of menswear frustrating. I want to dress like myself, and not like James Bond, Steve McQueen, Sartre, or some action figure I owned when I was a kid. (Of course, dressing like “oneself” raises other problems of authenticity.) From time to time, the simplicity of choosing to be hegemonically unfashionable exerts an appeal; so does the adaptable invisibility of “normcore.” Still, today’s profusion of colorful menswear is infinitely superior to the barren landscape that existed just a decade ago. Men dress better now. And menswear has made it more interesting to be a man. When I was in college, in the late nineties and early aughts, straight-white-male identity was more rigid and unreflective. It was never supposed to think about itself. That’s less true now, for a whole host of reasons, and menswear is one of them.