The spring 2017 Versace men’s show opened with a slim, muscular, androgynous young man dressed in a fitted olive drab tee, matching cropped leggings and a long nylon windbreaker with the sleeves shoved up to his elbows. The black crew socks and multi-Velcro strap hospital shoes belied his serious expression. The rest of the show, filled with shades of blue, purple, brown and khaki, conveyed themes of sportif, punk and Goth. On the whole, the show was described as relevant and modern, one of Donatella Versace’s best men’s collections.
However, my eyes were drawn to classic elements in menswear: suiting, outerwear, button downs and sturdy leather goods. The model who wore the printed anorak, leggings, high tops and fanny pack seemed strange, out of context and a bit silly. Granted, we live in a Wrangler jeans and pearl snap shirt saturated part of the country, so maybe there’s less context for a Ramones meets “2001: A Space Odyssey” sensibility.
But it is still true that a woman’s style sensibility is judged in part by how modern and on trend she is, while men we consider well-dressed seem to reference tradition and a classic attitude almost without exception.
Women consider certain gender-bending men, like the late rock stars David Bowie and Prince as inspirations. But our male style icons are a different story. Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Bob Dylan and the Marlboro Man are all part of the same style curve: cool, restrained, elegant and overtly masculine. Do men live under a sartorial glass ceiling?
It is a double standard of sorts. While fashion has provided a way for women to gain a greater sense of personal and professional latitude, men’s fashion outside the traditional scope has never been adopted to the same extent. Big fashion houses have maintained a menswear division for decades, and yet on the retail side, which is where fashion is brought into reality and tested, men’s stand-alone high-end fashion stores pretty much do not exist. So is it injustice, sexual oppression and a cause for rebellion? No, not really.
Before we try to get our men to form special interest groups or lobby Congress for fashion equality, consider this. If you look at women’s fashion on a graph, over history it has always moved in a sporadic, highly dynamic manner. The continuity of women’s fashion is based on change. But if you were to model men’s fashion, it would be much more linear, showing small curves from time to time.
Men often make more money than women, have more decision-making power and have the ability to expose themselves to culture, media and fashion as readily as women. So theoretically, if they wanted to follow and participate in high fashion, they could. But they don’t. Retail concepts geared toward men are always popping up, but the only ones that make money are the fast fashion outlets geared towards men in their late teens and 20s, like Swedish retailer H&M. Or traditional retailers who inject fashion into their existing program, like Thom Browne’s Black Fleece Collection for Brooks Brothers.
The average man does not buy into high fashion because he cannot but because he will not. So the double standard becomes a double negative. The day you walk into Schmaltz’s Sandwich Shoppe and find men eating a Blue Plate Special in designer parachute pants and aviator goggles is not near, but it also may not be as far off as we think.