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Menswear is an increasingly exciting area of design. Innovative up-and-coming designers and an expanding market share have combined to improve its status, alongside womenswear, as an important creative discipline. In this post I’m trying to describe some of the major tendencies in contemporary menswear and their wider cultural significance.

Men’s fashion in the last decade has been characterised by a style, pioneered by Hedi Slimane, of closer fit; an emphasis on fine drapey fabrics, shrunken tailoring and touches of androgyny. This aesthetic comprised of rocky and punky influences mixed with a kind of louche dandyism, the defining look: skinny jeans with a tailored jacket.[1]

Dior Homme by Hedi SlimaneDior Homme Hedi Slimane

Now a new menswear aesthetic appears to be emerging. Fashionable brands such as Our Legacy, YMC, Bleu de Paname and Folk are exploring a look with a strong emphasis on traditional fabrication, detailing which heavily references workwear, and hippyish folk-inspired touches, particularly in knit.

I would contest that while both of these styles are associated with particular designers and labels, their origins lie in fashionable dress as worn on the street. In both cases, models for these styles existed before their reproduction by designers: these were creative people who mixed second-hand, customised, and reclaimed garments to achieve their own look.

For me, this shift in menswear is intriguing. If we accept (as I do) that the clothes we put on encode meaning, we can suggest that this transformation reflects broader cultural and attitudinal changes. A desire to engage with the process of manufacture or make, strikes me as central to this folky-workwear aesthetic. Magazines such as Inventory, an early adopter and innovator of the style, spend as much time explaining to their readers how garments and accessories have been crafted, as discussing their inherent qualities. Equally, this is a look that favours texture (and even coarseness) over smooth, lustrous or drapey fabrics: there is a sense in which the consumer wants to see evidence of how the fabric has been woven or knitted.

 

It is surely laudable that consumers wish to know how, where, and by whom their clothes were made, with the concern for welfare and craft that implies. Nevertheless, there is (at least for me) an uneasiness about clothing that gives one the appearance of a 19th Century industrial or agricultural worker, but which costs many hundreds of pounds. To quote a friend “it’s as if people want to have things which are home-spun without spinning them themselves”. While it is easy to critique this consumption of craft as a co-option of something authentic by commercialism, it could be argued that it points to more radical instincts and aspirations in which work is meaningful, productive and celebrated.[2]

While the shift from rock-dandy to folky-proletarian may seem quite profound, I would suggest that both form part of a wider and more significant trend in which menswear has become more diverse and creative. Nor do I think that the styles pioneered by Hedi Slimane have become irrelevant, even if they are increasingly superseded by more contemporary interpretations of menswear. He remains for me one of the great innovators of modern fashion: in revisiting tailoring, exploring silhouette, and playing with the semantics of iconic menswear garments (the dinner jacket, the motorcycle jacket, the jean) he expanded what was deemed possible in menswear. The huge increase of interest in men’s fashion and the increased economic importance of the sector points to developments in male consumption and indeed in the consumption of masculinity(ies) which are worthy of further exploration.


[1] Some of us (hardly dinosaurs) entering fashion school in the first years of the 2000s remember how radical and indeed “contested” this new aesthetic was. Hedi Slimane’s collections for YSL and then Dior Homme started to attract positive attention at the same time as magazines like Arena Homme Plus were styling shoots with reinterpreted, nipped-in tailored styles, mixed with denim and leather. The process of the adoption of this look by the mainstream was slow, but by the end of the decade it had filtered right down to the high street.

[2] These problems and contradictions aren’t new of course. William Moriss and Arts and Crafts manufacturers came up against similar pressures in the 19th Century. I would also argue that as in Moriss’ day, they point to wider dissatisfactions with the model of market capitalism which prevails.

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