Baudelaire On Beauty
The 19th century poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire believed that fashionable dress, the up-to-the-moment garments and forms of appearance displayed by stylish men and women, was the most authentic barometer of social tastes and preoccupations at any given time. He suggested that the indissoluble connection between society and style was forged by people’s pursuit of Beauty:
“The idea of Beauty which man creates for himself imprints itself on his whole attire, crumples or stiffens his dress, rounds off or squares his gesture, and in the long run even ends by subtly penetrating the very features of his face. Man ends up by looking like his ideal self.”[i]
To articulate his thoughts and substantiate his theories (expounded in his discursive essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’), Baudelaire used fashion plates from contemporary journals and the drawings and engravings of Dutch-born ‘Monsieur G’, Constantin Guys.
If it is true that sartorial vogues truly express the spirit of an age, or at least a metropolitan distillation of the age, what might today’s vogues in menswear reveal about 21st century Western society? The question is easily posed but far from easy to answer, especially as the recent round of Spring/Summer international fashion shows has now introduced a hermaphroditic look for men !
In nearly all of the fashion shows, there has been an abundance of asymmetric tailoring, bright colours and bold colour combinations, zoomorphic motifs, including lions, jellyfish, rhinos and unicorns from Au Jour le Jour and cats from Łukasz Załora – all of which reflect themes within contemporary interior design à la Luke Edward Hall and Ben Pentreath.
Equally hard to miss is the abundance of lace, fur, vest tops and, most conspicuous of all, the large amounts of flesh. This season’s shorter shorts would seem to have emboldened designers to show off more of the male physique.[ii] It will be interesting to see whether consumers will be similarly brave when the clothes arrive in stores.
The Mixed Messages of the Media?
The socio-economic upheavals of recent years have produced myriad sartorial subcultures, some of which have accurately anticipated several of the looks showcased in London, Milan and Paris. But the profusion of so many different styles makes it difficult to pinpoint sartorial trends of today.
Baudelaire was confident that a particular style or item of clothing could define an age.[iii] In the 20th century, photographer and fashion critique Sir Cecil Beaton thought similarly, but things are no longer so clear-cut, if ever they really were at one time.[iv] This noticeable pace of change in the fashion and beauty sectors often makes last season’s fashion- and gender-related commentaries feel outdated and contradictory.
In two of his most recent articles, journalist Mark Simpson, who coined the term ‘Metrosexual’, criticised reality television series The Island for portraying men in a sexist and reductionist manner whilst simultaneously putting the finishing touches to his new masculine classification, the Spornosexual.[v]
According to Simpson, Spornosexuals are ‘mostly straight-identified young men […] happy to advertise, like an Attitude chat line, their love of the pornolised, sporting-spurting male body – particularly their own.[vi] The men seem to enjoy and court sexual adventure–or at least sexual attention, from both sexes. ‘It is the obvious, if oblivious, visual bi-curiosity of today’s totally tarty, hyper metrosexuality that alarms people even more than its ‘vulgarity’. Simpson’s concern is that men and their masculinities are being misrepresented on TV jars as an enthusiastic documentation and definition of masculinity, thus becoming more and more characterised by an overt preoccupation with the male body. What’s going on?
There is no fault in Simpson’s analysis. The fact is that journalism, which chronicles the present (and generally overlooks the past), struggles to maintain a coherent account of the various types of masculinities and fashion camps that exist — while at the same time keeping pace with social developments that act as a catalyst for many people to re-evaluate their public and private roles.
It doesn’t help that most fashion commentaries are devoid of social insight. In the 19th century, Charles Baudelaire was well aware of the confusion and disquiet resulting from social upheavals, and the commensurate effect that this confusion had on outward appearance. As an example, he attributed the genesis of the dandy to the period’s ‘transition’ and ‘disorder’.[vii]
Dichotomies In Men’s Dress
In an attempt to make sense of catwalk fashion and men’s daily garb, which are not strictly analogous, in past commentaries I have suggested that men’s clothing trends have become dichotomised between two very broad, but no less patent, masculine groups:
(1) The first group is defined by an assertive masculinity that is informed by historic notions of men’s social position, predicated on physical strength and wage-earning ability, and
(2) The second group, by contrast, is more passive. It embraces characteristics conventionally associated with females; empathy, humility and cooperation.[viii]
If the former group projects its ideals, however subconsciously, through tailored suits and the corresponding requisites (hats, tie pins, carry cases, etc.), the latter group manifests its views through mix-and-match tailoring, brighter colours and contrasting textures. As accurately characterised as I think these broad generalisations are, the group definitions do not satisfactorily explain next year’s hermaphroditic looks for Spring and Summer. The missing element, I think, is a consideration of time (the current era) and place (the landscape around a certain fashion choice).
Today’s Modes & Mentalities in Men’s Dress
Men’s classic dress remains conservative and wedded to the structure of the suit because men’s identities, however diverse, are sensitively attuned to economic considerations that underpin notions of public status and self-worth.
Market research continues to show that men are more sensitive to economic factors – salaries earned, property owned, etc. – than women.[ix] Studies of men’s dress that compare different periods have also shown that moments of widespread financial crisis have profoundly and repeatedly affected male dress in very similar ways; typically the rejection of formal tailoring at the start of a cycle of economic instability and the re-adoption of formal tailoring as signs of recovery become apparent. Men’s sensitivity to economic signals seems to be ‘hard wired’ into their subconscious, such that it overrides the myriad masculinities that exist at moments of acute socio-economic tension.
Men’s clothing conservatism explains why there is a stark divide between their ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty’ wardrobes, a situation that is much less apparent for women. In recent years, the appearance of more relaxed and louche vogues in men’s Spring and Summer wardrobes has only increased this divide, and next year looks to be a watershed moment.
As to why this sartorial gulf should be widening, I think there are two main reasons. Firstly, the greater the gap that exists between men’s work and leisure wardrobes, the more recognisable men at work appear.
An easily identifiable homo economicus has its advantages in a society that now has begun to question the core value of men’s social roles and civic contributions; only four years ago, journalist Hanna Rosin prophesied The End of Men because, she claimed, men have limited utility in our post-industrial age.[x]
The second reason is less cataclysmic. Whilst men remain sensitive to their economic status, the opportunity, ability and inclination to demonstrate economic strength through ornamental masculinity (to borrow Susan Faludi’s phrase) have decreased as the divisions between ‘work’ and ‘home’ have blurred following the idea of working from home and the reality of ‘stay-at-home dads’ have become commonplace.
In a recent article for the Financial Times, David Hayes explains that men and women are also ‘retreating more and more in to [their] homes’ with ready meals, home cinema and pre-recorded television.[xi] He argues that this change in living patterns explains the emergence of the ‘third wardrobe’, ‘clothes that are neither work-smart nor weekend-away casual, but aimed squarely at those curled-up-on-the-sofa moments.’
If this lack of opportunity to make strong sartorial statements about economic standing helps to explain the increased interest in formal tailoring, it may also explain why men’s ‘off-duty’ dress is focusing more on comfort and as the fashion shows have recently demonstrated, on humour and gender equality. After all, when it comes to watching a late night film, can it really matter who works where and what they earn?
Dr Benjamin Wild : http://linleywild.com
[v] M. Simpson, ‘Bare Thrills’ Strips Masculinity Down To Its Skidmarks’ (20 May, 2014): www.marksimpson.com/blog/2014/05/20/bare-thrills-strips-masculinity-down-to-its-skidmarks/. Accessed: 22 May, 2014.
[vi]M. Simpson, ‘Meat the Spornosexual’ (25 March, 2014): www.marksimpson.com/blog/2014/03/25/meat-the-spornosexuals/. Accessed: 27 March, 2014.
[viii] B.L. Wild, ‘The Great Masculine Revival’ (29 May, 2014): http://linleywild.com/2014/05/29/the-great-masculine-revival/. Accessed: 29 May, 2014.