The Conservatism of Menswear

By Phil Zminda, Editor-in-Chief
Photography by Rashod Blades
Modeled by Jack Mazzeo, Jace Ritchey and Ty Nicholson

This article has been adapted for the web from our Flux Issue.

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In interwar London, psychologist John Carl Flügel was desperate for a liberated men’s wardrobe. “Man,” Flügel claimed, had “abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at only being useful.” Flügel asserted that, prior to the 18th century, men wore vivacious colors, lavish fabrics, and even high heels as status symbols—until the Enlightenment movement posited all men as equal, and more importantly, practical. In the philosophy’s spirit of egalitarianism, men were encouraged to only wear shirts, suits, pants, and ties. Encouraged is an understatement, though; others read the choice to wear any other sort of clothing as an assertion that they were better than other men. Just as today, alliance with other men was the only reliable route to power or social status, so flamboyant dressing was left for women, and paying for their wives’ fashions was left to men, making their women true accessories and symbols of wealth in one fell swoop. Flügel named this late 18th century shift in men’s fashion the Great Male Renunciation. His perspective on fashion history was undoubtedly informed by his membership in the Men’s Dress Reform Party. The London-based “clothing reform” movement endorsed kilts over trousers, blouses over shirts, sandals to shoes, and shorts over trousers as everyday wear for men. Although many of these reformers based their arguments on sun-worshipping pseudoscience (exposure to sunlight could cure tuberculosis!) and a simple desire for fabrics more breathable than wool, they had a point—the conservatism of men’s fashion was, and remains to this day, suffocating.

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In the centuries since the Renunciation, women’s fashion has exploded in variety, with the avant-garde and the tame being able to coexist on the same runway, in the same store, and even on the same woman. Although this variability in feminine aesthetics may come from sexist roots of “woman as an accessory,” it gives modern women the opportunity to experiment with different looks and trends without fearing it reflects on their character or person. To follow and play with different trends as a woman, if anything, is celebrated; she’s seen as adaptable, fashionable, and well-read.

Menswear and the men who follow it are not so lucky. The post-Renunciation “maniform” of suits and trousers has left an indelible mark on the variety of men’s fashion that lines the clothing racks of malls everywhere. The possible outfits menswear consumers can buy almost never deviate from the shirt and trousers silhouette template, and the more outrageous menswear runway looks never truly find their way onto the racks. This conundrum leaves menswear either absurd or boring, while womenswear can be absurd, boring, elegant, refined, and a dictionary of other descriptors.

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This isn’t to say that men aren’t permitted to have style— there are plenty of menswear savants who make lemonade out of these polyester lemons—but it feels like they can’t have fashion. It’s unfair to entirely blame menswear for being boring, as the majority of men only want boring, but the men who want something else are left to either spend a pretty penny, get used to it, or scour the women’s rack. What further complicates the menswear industry is the way in which men use it. Men’s apparel operates on an assumption that men use fashion not to express facets of who they are, as womenswear may, but to avoid looking foolish. The ubiquity of the “maniform” causes men to fear that any deviation from its most unassuming forms—a t-shirt and jeans, a button-down and a shirt—is fodder for mockery because it either doesn’t look good or because it’s “feminine” to care about how you dress. This toxic culture of men and the menswear industry in tandem create a vicious cycle in which men dress conservatively by default, and are only able to either purchase more of the same or dress in excessively liberal “rebellion” clothes, leaving them nothing in the middle ground to explore. Today’s men, just as post-Renunciation men, thus stick to the same tried and tired clothes.

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It’s not like men don’t care about fashion, though. r/malefashionadvice, a Reddit community sporting over 1.3 million subscribers, provides visual guides to basic wardrobes, fit and color to men who don’t know where to begin their relationship with fashion. Its members post inquiries about what pants to wear with red shoes, which pair of white low-tops is best, whether messenger bags are in or not, and even how to embrace the “goth ninja” aesthetic. Perhaps this community typifies that excessive concern with how they look, but it could also indicate men have a more vested interest in fashion if they understand it better, if it’s clear that there are as many ways to dress “like a man” as there are to dress “like a woman.”

It’s a popular maxim that clothing doesn’t have gender, but as long as men’s fashion serves a population with such rigid gender norms to follow, it’s difficult for the average man to fully divorce it from his clothing. One of the two major cultural forces that shape men’s aesthetics—designers and masculinity—must give in order to pave the way for newer, less constricting possibilities. The culture of men will not change without challenge, so designers and consumer fashion businesses must inch it forward. They can put jumpsuits or rompers in men’s sections without marketing them as “for him.” They can create men’s clothing that replicates the variety of shapes, silhouettes, and colors in women’s clothing. They can even put famous men in these clothes to normalize its existence. This isn’t to say every brand must do this, as everything isn’t for everybody. But endlessly reinforcing a monolithic aesthetic onto an entire gender not only encourages homogeny, but also limits what they’re allowed to look like.

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