Men’s fashion presents an exciting mixture of both the political and the aesthetic; aesthetic because the way all fashion excites the senses; political in the sense that Mary Louise Pratt means it: the body is a contact zone, a social space in which culture meets and grapples with itself.
Looking at sites like MaleFashionAdvice or shows like Queer Eye makes me think that now more than ever men are liberated to openly embrace fashion—or more precisely—liberated to now speak of the conscientious fashioning of their appearance. It wasn’t so long ago that GQ was an industry magazine meant for the wholesaler and haute couture was the language of the privileged class. In some ways we have see the democratization of exclusiveness, if for no other reason than it is better for the bottom line.
But in 1972, John Berger wrote:
To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under the tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a women’s self being split in two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself….….And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman
In this essay, Berger argued that a women’s social presence comes when they APPEAR and that a man’s presence comes when they ACT. The illusion of what a man can do to you or for you is what gives him social power.
Given that Berger’s dichotomy was set-up forty years ago, one has to wonder if it is still valid in this new age where men are surveying themselves with the understanding that they are being surveyed by others. Are men also split in two? SURVEYOR and SURVEYED? Is male fashion an ACT? And does it make APPEARANCE now an ACTION? (After all, we do live in the age of the supremacy of the image)
Here I am looking at a picture of a young man in a suit. The suit is impossibly tight, nothing I could ever fit into. It is also quite expensive, nothing I could ever afford. And yet, it is not the suit that catches my eye. It is the pose. Picture after picture, I see the poses these men strike in their newest fashion and it is meant to communicate to me carelessness, nonchalance. Each picture seems to say: I am not dressing or posing in any way in particular. I am above that. It is you who are looking at me. It is you who are powerless. But always remember, I am free.
What kind of man is this? Is this the self-made man? I believe in his existence. I want to believe in his existence. But In reality, the man who thinks he is above the concerns of fashion—who glibly lives in the world of Merona—risks being seen as a schlub, a dupe, boring, in a word: powerless. The power of clothes as I see them in the magazine is meant to be an expression of the power we have over ourselves and the ways in which we have not submitted to the power of another, the ways in which we are above power itself.
But as with so many things—Democracy included—the dream is not the reality. Genuine fashion is on the street, not in the magazine. And when I look around, I see male fashion as an indication of whom it is you serve most. Is that a power tie? For whom do you wear it? Are those designer jeans? Whose expectations must you satisfy? Nice suit! Where do you work?
“So and so is my master,” each outfit says to me. “And I am happy to serve.”
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