I work part-time at an upscale clothing store where I specialize in men's suiting, because it turns out my landlord won't accept unproduced screenplays as a form of rent payment. And the one thing that being around men's fashion a lot has taught me is this: It's inexcusably boring.
Take a look at any Hollywood red carpet event. On the men's side, it's a sea of black suit jackets, black pants, black ties, and white shirts. A while back, a male news anchor quietly wore the same suit for a year just to see if anyone would notice (they didn't). Sure, those suits come with minor variations in lapel lengths or cuff styles, but in the end, all you can wonder is why men's clothes are so drab, when just a few hundred years ago, they looked like this:
Hyacinthe Rigaud - Public Domain
I recently saw this painting in person, and let me tell you, nothing about this seems un-masculine to me. Louis XIV here is straight-up rocking tights, red high heels, and Brian May's exact hair, but damn if he's not pulling it off. Who's going to laugh at him? Nobody, that's who. Dude's got a freakin' sword and a sassy pose that practically screams, "I can't wait to eviscerate the first person to criticize my cloak's hemming."
So why is it that today, even introducing some bright colors to the standard suit and tie will make you too flamboyant for the average conference room, where the only acceptable colors for men's clothing are basically "black" and "blue so dark that it's basically black"?
I Blame A Guy Named Beau Brummell
Beau Brummell was a sartorial luminary of the 19th century who was the best representation of the burgeoning dandy movement. Brummell's style rejected breeches, brocades, and vibrant colors in favor of blacks, grays, and clean lines. He thought men should wear a white shirt with a dark jacket, matching pants, and a tied neck ornament. In other words, he more or less popularized what would become the modern suit.
Richard Dighton - Public Domain
Now, Brummell wasn't rich by any means, so he could never start a clothing line like "Boring by Brummell" or whatever. In fact, he died penniless in an asylum, where he was being "treated" for syphilis-induced insanity. But ask anyone in the background of a pop music video, and you'll learn that you don't have to be rich to hang out with the rich. And Brummell did exactly that, palling around with the future King George IV and influencing him and his posse to ditch those robes and go for something a little more subdued.
In fact, there's a statue of Brummell in London's Jermyn Street, which is to men's fashion what Burning Man is to college dropouts learning to forgive their fathers. The statue bears an inscription reading "To be truly elegant one should not be noticed," which really wraps up modern men's fashion in a neat little bow (which society says we can't wear).
Then It Becomes Fashionable For The Rich And Powerful To Look "Ordinary"
So could a single couture-conscious time traveler throw Baby Brummell into a cholera pit and save men's fashion? Probably not, but I'm still going to pitch that as Timecop 3: Fashion Police. Beau may have shown up at just the right place and time in history, at the cusp of increasing globalization and communication, for his personal style to become the de facto outfit of Western menswear. But he was a symptom, not a cause. To understand why he rejected dressing like if Prince had a cameo on Game Of Thrones, we need to talk about the Great Male Renunciation.
Broadly speaking, the Great Male Renunciation was when men's fashion traded individual expression for homogeneity. It may have had noble motives, as the sentiments behind it were largely a condemnation of the extreme class divides of monarchical societies. Only men of means could afford pavonine accouterments, aka dope threads like Louis XIV up there, and things like sumptuary laws literally made looking too pimp a crime. (For poor people, obviously. Laws don't apply to the rich, silly!)
Dressing like someone who never worked a day in his life became deeply unpopular in a world that was becoming enamored with this crazy thing called "democracy." C'mon, try a little democracy! It won't hurt ya. You're not a nerd, are you? All the cool kids are toppling inherited rule!
In the USA, you had famous examples like Benjamin "Poonhound" Franklin giving up his powdered wig during the Revolution. Wearing more sober clothing became a signifier both of a more democratized society and of men abandoning what was seen as pretension in favor of utility and promoting the idea that everyone* was equal. (*Some exceptions may apply.)
Today, It's All About Masculinity
Of course, during this time, women were for the most part still expected to put extreme amounts of thought and resources into their dress (since it was decided that one of their roles was to serve as human decoration while the men did important business). Creativity in dress thus became a woman's thing, and a guy who seemed too into it was violating masculine norms. Remember the "metrosexual" thing from a while back?
Today, most men are terrified to dress even 5 percent outside of these rigid rules, out of a fear of being mistaken for gay. ("Whoa, look at Elton John over here!") I've seen firsthand how utterly terrified men are at the idea of wearing a dark purple shirt, or god forbid, a pastel. From the way some guys react to the suggestion of a light pink shirt, you'd think I offered fishnets with a bejeweled codpiece.
Remember the "same suit for a year" news anchor up there? He did that after his female co-host Lisa Wilkinson talked about viewers' utter obsession with on-air women's clothing choices. Our culture demands a creative new outfit every day from women and stoic conformity from men. God forbid they just express themselves however they see fit.
This has all been ingrained via generations of social shaming, so I don't know how much good it will do for me to say, "Just wear whatever you want, regardless of whether it's traditionally masculine or not. As long as you like how you look, it's fine." But maybe we could at least start by admitting that it was a series of wrong turns that got us here.
For more, check out 7 Tricky Ways The Women's Clothing Industry Is Scamming You:
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Most rich kids just want to be pop stars.
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