Gender

What if Men Challenged Women as the Fashionable Sex?

Men may have finally broken the style barrier.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Last weekend, the New York Times’ style magazine T offered pages of snazzy geometric sweaters, elegant leather bags, luscious silk scarves and jewel-toned fabrics -- all in anticipation of Fashion Week, the glamorous biannual party where designers show off their new concoctions. But one thing was different: It was all about men.

This year, men may have finally broken the style barrier. They are sporting candy-colored socks, sequin-studded tops and paisley blazers. “For Every Man, A Man Bag” proclaimed the Times in a piece gushing praise for the sudden acceptance of men carrying purses. "Mantyhose" and "broisery" are now availablefor today's metrosexuals wishing to enjoy legwear long reserved for women.

What happened to the man in the grey flannel suit? Are men taking over as the gender of style and sex appeal? Something is clearly in flux. What’s it all going to mean?

Ever since the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, men have been expected to look like sober minions of the office building. Gone was the florid attire of yore. In the 18th century, a man of high standing sported elaborate wigs, sumptuous silks and even high-heeled shoes. Men of lesser means strutted their stuff in tight breeches and jaunty chapeaus. But industrial capitalism cast a pall over men’s fashion. In the new, strictly-enforced patriarchal system, men were assigned the role of provider, while women were designated objects of beauty – that is, until they got married and had kids, at which point they were supposed to give up their silk stockings for apron strings. Things changed when women entered the workforce in the 1920s and chucked their impractical corsets. In the post-'60s era of women’s liberation, the de rigueur power suit, complete with masculine shoulder pads, conveyed authority to women in the office. By night, she could become a vamp; by day it was all business.

By the '90s, designers like Donna Karan began softening the lines of women’s professional clothing, creating brightly hued wrap dresses that allowed women to look both sharp and creative in the office, rather than the mirror image of Grey Flannel Man. Meanwhile, the '60s had tossed up the possibility of Countercultural Man in flowered shirts and beads – the return of the repressed 18th-century dandy and a challenge to capitalist patriarchy. The growing influence of gay culture on fashion in the '80s further opened the door for men to express their personal style after work hours. Casual Fridays allowed men at least a little room to experiment with professional style. In the '90s, the metrosexual began his androgenous ascent into the world of fashion, and the rise of the Silicon Valley creative class further expanded the palette of men’s work apparel (though personally I find hoodies on men over 40 in a work setting to be absurd).

But in many offices across America today, men still languish in the drab, ubiquitous business uniform. Some may be grateful for the simplicity that relieves them from the task of wondering what to wear. But others no doubt feel a bit of resentment watching women gad about in cheerful colors and even getting away with looking sexy in the office – with all the perks and pitfalls that accompany such experiments. Outside the office, men have more or less taken on a kind of infantile sporty look for socializing. I have been on numerous dates in New York City – supposedly the fashion capital of the country – with men wearing sneakers, baseball caps, shorts, and other items that to me properly belong in a football stadium or a playground. The explanation is invariably, “I just want to be comfortable.”

OK, I get that. You won’t find me tripping around town in ankle-twisting stilettos. Still, it’s possible to combine comfort with style. Loose-fitting clothing can accommodate even the exigencies of male anatomy and not look ridiculous. Neck-constricting ties aren't neccesary in most settings. And trousers don’t have to be crotch-suffocating. Inspired by kilts and togas, cutting-edge designers have even been dabbling in producing smart-looking skirts for men, with Jean Paul Gaultier leading the charge in his 1985 collection. (I used to love watching the summer Olympics as a kid to see those hunky Cook Islanders wearing groovy skirts in the Parade of Nations.)

So the next time a man pulls the comfort card on a date, I think I’m going to reply, “Really? Then could we please sit near a mirror? Because I’d like to look at something aesthetically pleasing.” I resent it when men make no effort in their appearance when being seen with me, not only because it conveys a lack of respect, but also because women are voyeurs, too. Sue me, but I like to look at a well-dressed man. I enjoy formal affairs, partly because I have yet to meet the man who did not instantly become more attractive in a crisp, elegant tuxedo. I love a neatly fitting shirt, made of fabric I’d like to touch. On a date, I want to gaze upon someone whose appearance has been designed to please me – it doesn’t have to be ostentatious or even expensive. What I want are well-cut pieces, attractive fabrics and shoes that do not require white shoestrings. Not only is it nicer for me, I’ll wager it’s nicer for them, too.

Why should women have all the fun of changing our appearance to suit the mood or occasion? Why should we be the only ones who get to enjoy being sexually alluring? There’s a terrible downside to expectations of female appearance – the expense, the discomfort and the pressure to be thin are high on the list. But I, for one, would not trade my closet of exciting female regalia for business suits and baseball caps. I relish the transformation that happens in the mirror when I get dressed. Do I want fierce don't-fuck-with-me boots or a flowy feminine dress? I decide. It’s energizing. It creates a break in routine. I very much want to invite men to be able to join me in this excitement.

Of course, there is danger in changing the rules. Men who look sexy at work may find themselves dealing with the same dichotomy of risk/reward that women have confronted. In social situations, men will walk a fine line in presenting masculinity that doesn’t confuse or invite ridicule. I once blew off a dinner invitation with a guy because I was sure he was gay. He owned an art gallery! He wore elegant shirts! He rode a red Vespa! I admit that in the rigid categories of my mind, all of this signaled “gay.” But what if it didn’t? What if it just meant that the guy was into art and enjoyed fun, stylish clothes and accoutrements? Wouldn’t this likely mean I’d have a more enjoyable date than I’d have with Mr. Baseball Cap? Very likely it would. I missed out on that one.

Gender roles have been in awkward transition for some time now, and everybody is pretty perplexed. In a prescient essay in her 1996 book The Power of Beauty, Nancy Friday suggested that if women wanted to share political and economic power with men, perhaps it was about time we began sharing the power of beauty, too. That doesn’t mean that men have to go prancing about being frivolous and obsessive about their looks – though for some that will undoubtedly happen. But it might mean a wider range of options to express style and creativity and be spared the rigid conformity that begins in childhood. Girls are allowed to be tomboys; I wore nothing but corduroy jeans and T-shirts for years as a child. But boys risk ostracization if they dare to relish frills and fun in their attire. (Some experiments are challenging this childhood regime, such as summer camps where boys who enjoy dressing in feminine styles can do so without shame -- see a recent NYT story.) 

Perhaps if men had wider options in expressing themselves in their appearance, there would be less resentment and hostility between the sexes. I am acutely aware that some of my boyfriends have harbored irritation toward me for what they perceived to be my unfair advantage in being able to look fabulous. I hear that. Sadly, that irritation is sometimes transformed into ugly putdowns on the street or “put-her-in-her-place” attacks from men who think themselves to be losers and chafe at what must seem like the undeserved power that women display through their clothes and appearance. If men had more choices, would that dissipate? Would there be less competition, more mutual enjoyment? 

In 2000, Susan Faludi documented the frustration of men trying to sort out changing definitions of masculinity and expectations in her book Stiffed. Faludi followed the trend of media predictions that men are not measuring up and becoming irrelevant, the latest of which appears in the form of Hanna Rosin's new book The End of Men. But maybe men are simply in transition, experiencing growing pains as the stifling structures of 19th- and 20th-century masculinity dissolve. And maybe they are due for some unexpected pleasures as new roles and ways of being become possible.

It’s always difficult to predict how change will pan out. It could be that male identity crises will only accelerate as men are objectified and pressured to spend money on enhancements they can’t afford and modifications like surgery. They might find bosses male and female chasing them around the office in the same way that women have experienced – or even worse, since men have not been trained in how to deal with it. 

We don’t know how this “Trading Places” story will end. But you can be sure something interesting has begun.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.