February 23, 2010

The Extremes of Male Fashion

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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that fashion for men and women were not created equal. Though the roles have been reversed since the days when females were literally restricted to strangling corsets and men were allowed to gallivant in handsomely tailored trousers, fashion, according to my three brothers, has become a bit despondent as of late. A section of the average department store is quite indicative of this unjustness; the men’s level is usually compressed to one level (typically in the dark, windowless basement next to the bathrooms), while the women’s department expands five levels, divided by price, designer and clothing quality. A quick glance at male runway styles reveals additionally unrealistic and questionably heterosexual looks — Full on plaid suits with prescription free Clark Kent glasses? Fur-trimmed military looks inspired by a rather skinny James Bond? Prepubescent schoolboy looks with knee length trouser shorts?

In the heat of the New York summer, one of my brothers once got a work citation for wearing these fashionable trouser shorts to work. When jokingly referring to the newest trend debuting on runways from Milano all the way to New York, his boss, in a stifling silk suit (pit stains and all), quizzically looked at him and replied very gruffly, “Never wear those shorts with dress shoes again.” Apparently, his boss had never seen Bill Cunningham’s amusingly narrated video coverage of this trend, and my poor brother did not understand that shorts at work are maybe only reserved for men in the fashion industry who work on the West Side, and not ex-athlete business consultants on Wall Street. Later that evening, he stashed the shorts in the back of his drawer, vowing to never make fashion risks again. And as it turns out, it seems that the unfair advantage men have had over women in the past has an ironic way of getting filtered into unjust fashion karma for men nowadays. While we women have the liberty to freely display or cover our legs, play with sexy silhouettes, hemlines and colors, as well as wear our boyfriend’s t-shirts, men do not have the option to freely unbutton shirt collars (unless you are a self proclaimed Guido), wear their girlfriend’s t-shirts, or in my brother’s instance, wear shorts to work and be applauded for the courage to be on trend.

Perhaps species other than Homo sapiens have much better prospects for male fashions. The male peacock, for instance, has a naturally luxurious plumage that he uses to gain his mate. With his rich feathers that graciously protrude from his body, he has little choice of what to do with his natural beauty other than to flaunt it. I suppose fashion for male humans is a bit more difficult, as much of what they wear is at times too defined by how women want them to appear. And so, how does a real man dress if one does not aspire to fulfill the female fantasy of Edward Cullen or that one hot Jonas Brother (I think his name is Joe … )?

When I am home during breaks, I look through old stacks of my brothers’ GQ magazines and am usually amazed at how I cannot differentiate the Fall/Winter issue from Spring; that is, there is not a lack of variation preached by menswear. Any page in a men’s style magazine will typically advocate a “different” take on a suit (usually by wearing a t-shirt in place of a dress shirt and designer sneakers or Italian loafers instead of oppressive dress shoes), or a solid sweater with a crisp collared shirt. Styles put forth are usually “classic,” not adventurous or risky. When was the last time a male celebrity or fashion icon was praised for dressing as dangerously as Lady Gaga without being accused of being an effeminate drag queen? The term power suit then makes no mistake of what it assumes: Like the peacock, males must parade the grounds to gain respect, but amusingly, not with color and extravagance. Rather, they get respect for their power and seriousness.

When girlfriends and I spot stylish guys, we immediately initiate a deductive process to conclude if he is straight or gay. If he is hipster and looks like even we could not fit into his grunge plaid, matchstick pants and Keds/Converses, we lean towards the not so straight side of the spectrum. If he is a “manly man” (envision Adrian Grenier from Entourage) with the tailored pea coat that his mother most likely bought him as a going away to college present and casual-dressy sneakers, he gains ten points and then some. When I was studying in New York City this past fall, it seemed like I ran into only the extremes of the spectrum, but here at Cornell, where many guys resort to over-packed backpacks, sloppy jackets, wrinkled Cornell sweatshirts and jeans with a bad acid wash, everything is just — well, so blasé. The most experimentation I’ve witnessed on this campus is typically post-Winter Break, where guys come back rejuvenated with either a fresh haircut and new sneakers, or scruffy and hermit-like, having discovered that they are suddenly able to grow an impressive amount of facial hair.

What many men do not realize is that the “effortless look” of the hot girl you ogle in the lecture hall is not so easy to pull off. Looking good comes from good taste and conviction in how you want to be perceived (and ironically, lots of effort). Though crisply tailored objects such as a nice coat, dark washed jeans of the right proportion, and a handsome soft scarf paired with a clean shirt can exude the aura of alpha male, men’s fashion must look forward and not behind. Accessories such as a leather messenger bag, a statement making watch, and even facial hair can be viewed as enhancements to the basic white t-shirt, but style, in the end, should not be a reinvention but an enhancement of yourself, fashionable trouser shorts and all.

Original Author: Courtney Jiyun Song