#Menswear: Masculinity in Crisis

February 28, 2014 • Fashion

The past few years have birthed a strange mythos surrounding menswear. As the men’s fashion industry develops, a culture has blossomed around it, highlighted primarily by the renaissance of magazines like GQ and the incredible success of blogs like Scott Schumann’s The Sartorialist. This new culture has produced a few narratives about men in fashion that have gone largely unquestioned. Perhaps the most prominent (and troubling) of these is the ongoing conflation of dressing differently. In other words, the emphasis on suiting, wingtip shoes, ties, and “classic” clothes has taken the place of fashion that seeks to challenge.

This is but part of the story, of course. Raf Simons, J.W. Anderson, Eckhaus Latta and others have pushed us to rethink the way men engage with fashion. All three designers have envisioned a new fashion that isn’t bound in age-old Oedipal preoccupations with “how they used to do it in the old days” or “classic fashion.” In short, they—in small chorus with other challenging designers—have attempted to move men’s fashion forward. They have questioned the nature of masculinity and the tools that have been used to fortify it.  Indeed, menswear’s development in recent years has provided a space for these experimentation to be celebrated and digested.

menswear masculinity crisis jw anderson raf simons

J.W Anderson / Michael Bastian

What’s unsettling, however, about the recent developments of menswear is the way it has largely resisted this new direction. Moreover, predominant menswear has responded to aesthetic challenges by hunkering down in the trenches of tradition and ideology. As part of a defense mechanism against the threat of ephemeral fashion, runways have reacted through venerating traditional masculinity and recycling a dangerous discourse.

The return or re-articulation of Dandyism has been the most noticeable aegis in defending tradition. Before delving into the contemporary Dandy, it might be fruitful to jump back to its most notable iteration in literature: Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life from 1863. In it, the Dandy is conceived as he for whom aesthetics are a religion of sorts. Life is a cultivation of aesthetically superior things. The Dandy, today, is not too different. Today’s Dandy is the man who wears a tweed suit every other day and participates in the cult of meticulous grooming (that has also developed in tandem with this aesthetic). His multiple copies of Take Ivy ally him with classic Americana and the masculine tradition it underscores. His accessories are part of a strong, virile iconography and none of them are seen as feminine, which would be a mortal threat to the entire enterprise contemporary menswear has orchestrated.

This idealized male figure seems to be firmly at the center of contemporary menswear. Commercial strains of fashion, as well as major menswear magazines, all participate in the construction of this ideal. From H&M to Banana Republic to J.Crew, one finds countless reference to a mythos of “heritage,” one that aggressively emphasizes the duration of the clothes and constructs a fantasy of the object that will last and be handed down. Note, again, the compulsive reaction against the ephemera of fashion. Much of current menswear resists fashion’s call for consistent change, which, in the face of the masculine rhetoric of the “long-lasting,” can be seen as weak. What is weak in the face of durational strength is also feminine. This language, therefore, locates a sexist resistance against the implicit feminization brought on by the fleeting nature of fashion.

menswear masculinity in crisis jw crew raf simons

J. Crew / Raf Simons

To a lesser extent, the runways have also been complicit in this resistance. Working against the grain of experimentation, some designers have made bold statements in support of conservative masculinity. Collections of classically tailored suits have served as the counterpoint to the genderless, avant-garde provocations on the other end of the spectrum. Others have featured similar masculine imagery, connected to themes of specifically masculine fantasies (i.e. the “Explorer,” as well as the Dandy, and the “Jock”). Overall, these contribute to a broad defense of aesthetic conservatism.

The challenges to the regime of the Dandy (and every other recycled dream at center of menswear) are important, and their demands deserve our attention. It’s possible that, in all the experimentation J.W. Anderson and his counterparts have done, there’s a space for newer, more capacious ways of thinking about men in fashion. The final analysis should be about inclusion, and it is the endpoint towards which some of the most exciting designers are consistently pushing. Neither classic suiting nor Ivy League iconography is inherently evil; it’s the way in which they’ve been mobilized that is unfortunate.

(Photos courtesy of Style.com)

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  • Tamia

    Well put, I couldn’t agree more! Really though, menswear oldheads are just sad old men who don’t want to shed their superiority complexes in order to make room for innovative thinking…

  • K. Morris

    Really fantastic and thoughtful piece. Thank you for writing and sharing!

  • Enriquetta

    I really do love this article and I agree with everything said. There really is no need to demonize traditional menswear, but it is necessary to critique it if it is not allowing menswear to advance and grow on the runways because of sexism. There is a need to bring these issues up more especially now with people become more and more interested in menswear.

  • Joe Somebody

    What a pretentious piece of drivel! It must be nice to be in a position to discuss clothing in terms of sociology and gender politics instead of simply protection from the elements. Get over yourself, Mr. Kessel.

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