PARIS: The day after designer Rick Owens shook up the male fashion world with full-frontal exposure of male models on the catwalk, labels from other designers take a 180° turn by highlighting military styles and vintage themes.
The importance of clothing is often justified with reference to Mark Twain’s observation that ‘clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’
Before this year’s round of international fashion weeks, few would have probably challenged this view; but now, it seems the naked man is in ascendance, as discussions about the power and provocation of the penis have caused the column inches to grow. First, there was Paris Fashion Week. In Rick Owen’s presentation, several male models wore cutaway garments revealing their penises.
Then, there was New York Fashion Week. French model Laurent Marchand strode down the catwalk for MT Costello in nought, but a crocodile print cape—with his genitalia clutched protectively in his hand and decorated with a bejeweled golden snake. As Marchand left the catwalk, he paused, dropped the cape, and flaunted his natural-born jewels in full.
Rick Owens claimed his controversial decision to display male genitalia was about fun, plain and simple.[i]
Remarking on the more forthright ‘penis exploitation’, MT Costello were less flippant. They argued that their provocative stunt elided with the brand’s ethos, which ‘unapologetically [breaks] the rules, [raises] the bar and [influences] the power of sex, love and rebellion.’[ii]
Understandably, fashion commentators have been weary about labeling this puckish penis pageantry a trend, but as Anne Hollander (among others) observed, fashion innovations are almost always aligned with the zeitgeist; they can amplify widely shared, if vaguely expressed, ideas—but they are hardly ever the result of a Virgin Birth.[iii]
The flashing of male flesh has certainly proceeded apace in recent years.
In 2014, Calvin Klein reinterpreted the commercial success of its now iconic, marketing campaign of 1992, which featured monochrome photographs of Marky Mark (Mark Wahlberg) grabbing his goods in the brand’s tighty-whities.
Last year’s campaign included singers Nick Jonas and Justin Bieber. Perhaps inevitably, new photo shoots triggered an ‘underwear off’, where members of the public – in reality, teenage girls – were encouraged to choose which of the two pop stars wore his briefs best.
I’m not sure if social media ever declared a winner, but Bieber was certainly compromised by suggestions that his underwear was padded. Evidently, there are some things that even the most ardent of Bliebers cannot accept.
Hollywood’s contribution to the undressing of men has been no less considerable.
In the absence of compelling dialogue and plot, Channing Tatum has continued to flaunt and flex his way through his own genre of muscle-heavy movies. The actor’s next film, set for release later this year, will continue the story a handyman-turned-male dancer, which began in 2012 with the release of Magic Mike. The trailer for the sequel, Magic Mike XXL, suggests the surfeit of shirtlessness will continue.
Alongside the taut and smooth bodies of models, music makers and movie stars, the casting of hairy-chested actors in lead roles, not least Henry Cavill and Zac Efron, who beat waxed rivals to claim the prestigious MTV Award for Best Shirtless Performance in 2014, has caused more people to inveigh against the sexualisation of the male torso, a concern that has raged ever since a trunk-clad Daniel Craig sashayed out of the ocean Ursula Andress-style in his first outing as James Bond in 2006.
One result of all of this theorising is the confusing profusion of labels that purport to describe modern men.
At the close of 2014, the categories of Spornosexual and Lumber Sexual were added to the mix. For the majority of men, concepts and debates that claim to elucidate today’s masculinities are perhaps little more than entertaining distractions in a newspaper, pondered over a morning cup of coffee…however, last year’s shorter shorts suggests the uncovering of the male body has eventually filtered down to the high street.[iv]
Whilst many men may baulk at gendered discussions, Calvin Klein’s advertising campaign of 1992 reveals the undressed male body and the (generally covered) penis has long proved provocative and compelling within male dress. Thirty years previously, political activist and convicted rapist Eldridge Cleaver had tried to free the penis from its ‘clothing castration’ by launching a range of hot pants that included a separate compartment for the male appendage.[v] The trousers were described as being ‘bad’, ‘mad’, ‘up front’ and for ‘real men’ only.
The garment never caught on, but in resembling the sixteenth-century codpiece (a sartorial contrivance that many designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood and Bernhard Willhelm, have conjured with), Cleaver’s trousers demonstrate that the male penis and its phallic representation has been a culturally potent symbol throughout history. In this sense, the real shock is not that this year’s catwalks have showcased the penis, but that they are doing so for the first time.
So why now?
In the nineteenth century, when Mark Twain suggested that naked people have no social influence, clothing styles clearly denoted sexual difference and status.
Today, when popular styles of clothing are increasingly seen to be promoting similarities over differences and consensus over individuality, could it be that the adoption of varying levels of nudity has somehow become the clearest way to establish a distinctive and unique identity through dress?
Benjamin Wild for Parisian Gentleman : http://benjaminwild.co
[i] H. Marriott, ‘Penises on the fashion catwalk – a flesh flaunt too far?www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/jan/22/-sp-penis-flashing-at-rick-owens-menswear-show. Accessed: 22-j-2015.
[ii] Anon. ‘Exposed Male Genitalia Hits the Runway at NYFW’.http://bellajoseph.com/mtcostello/exposed-male-genitalia-hits-runway-nyfw/. Accessed: 27-ij-2015.
[iii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973), 304-305.
[iv] D. Colman, ‘A New Length for Men’s Shorts’, The Wall Street Journal (9 May, 2014).www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304831304579546312161483266. Accessed:12-v-2014 ; C. Porter, ‘A shorts story’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (24/25 May, 2014), 4.