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What if Men Challenged Women as the Fashionable Sex?

Men may have finally broken the style barrier.
 
 
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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 available for 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.”