Clothes Sense

Girlie Men

Revamping male couture.

Everybody knows that Paris is the realm of fashion, fashion is the realm of artifice, and both are the realm of women. This year as always, Paris fashion has meant fabulous-looking girls slinking along in foot-high hair or plastered-flat hair with grim or giddy hats and stark painted faces, sporting fitted tops, transparent tops, cutout tops, tight skirts slit to here, full skirts trailing to there, floppy pants or skinny pants, trimmings that glitter or flutter, colors that dazzle or puzzle, curled feathers and dyed fur, boiled wool and frosted leather, crushed velvet, shot silk, frayed hemp, and distressed plastic. Such displays are to be expected in Paris, as part of the traditional French insistence that Eve has the right to cut and shape her fig leaf, edge it with spangled lace, and lacquer it black. If you want Adam’s fig leaf in its natural material, go to London.

Or so legend has it. British understatement set the universal standard for male elegance in 1800, and it’s holding its own two centuries later. When Beau Brummell said, “If you noticed me, I wasn’t well-dressed,” he put an end to purple feathers and crimson velvet for men all over the Western world, and that was that, right down to all the Similar Sober Suits at summit meetings.

But men, apparently, are getting tired of being inconspicuous. With no loss of beauty and status (men’s suits are just as becoming as they ever were), perfect male tailoring has lost some of its virile edge. No wonder, since the strongest theme in modern women’s fashion has been the creative theft of the male wardrobe, with all its components translated into terms of conspicuous seduction. How can men’s fashion respond to this?

Paris has the answer: Just take it back, and take it further. Paris today–and Milan and New York, always hoping to outdo Paris–is offering men’s fashion shows of unexpected glamour, color, and sexuality, founding a new theater that could someday rival its feminine equivalent, applying Eve’s method to Adam. In the this year’s fall collections, designers for men were using the same trousers and shorts, shirts and sweaters, coats and jackets that women had already rescued from British decorum and boldly distorted for themselves. The menswear shows deployed a similar suggestiveness–a form-fitting shape, a brazen inventiveness of texture and hue, a daring sweep of cuff, collar, and coattail, all totally forbidden by Saville Row, but gloriously worked up for women during the last 30 years by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent.

Here there’s a fur scarf or some extra drapery added to the neck of a man’s suit; there there’s a man’s raincoat in metallic fabric that moves in a million glittering folds. There’s a man’s svelte blazer tailored in a red-flowered ivory brocade. There are also references to 17th-century pirates, ArabianNights sultans, Regency bucks, fin-de-siècle dandies and depraved noblemen of the ancien r(gime.

I>t’s exhilarating to see this stuff back on men, and not just in the movies. The models look magnificent, especially the ones working for Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier, who have joyfully reveled in creating extreme artifice for both sexes. Gaultier’s male models wear full makeup and pencil mustaches with their finery, and they smolder with conviction. The ones from Masaki Matsushima even smolder in silvery 18th-century wigs, and one Moschino model wore a blue Louis XV wig with a blue denim ensemble, his face a charming study in irony. Yohji Yamamoto uses tragic-faced models, some bald, middle-aged, and not so slim, on whom his quasi-Middle Eastern robes, coats, and headgear look nearly noble. Many comely youths, on the other hand, look much like Shelley’s portrait, with flowing locks and tender throats exposed above their soft suede suits.

The whole display vividly depicts what men have envied for so long. For generations, they had to look tough, modest, honest, and restrained under plain suits or plain sportswear. Masculinity was allowed no erotic range in dress; the phallic necktie, licensed to reflect light and glow with color, was famously men’s only hope. Every expressive shape or shiny streak in a coat and suit bore the dread suggestion of effeminacy, connoting both a lack of integrity and an unbridled vanity felt to be unavoidable in women, but criminal, even thuggish, in men. And so the free play of fantasy died out of men’s clothes. Revived fantasy has tended in one direction only, which means that lately, there’s been more than enough black leather, harsh metal, and shaved hair. Maybe now that sexual ambiguity is recognized as a potent force, we can begin to see men in gold embroidery and sweeping folds of silk.

Long habits die hard, though. Most men’s fashion shows still concentrate on exquisite variations of the formal and sporty classics, with plenty of subtle colors, beautiful cravats and very discreet historical references. Male models still can’t carry off the gaudy stuff. They lurch uncomfortably along the catwalk, imprisoned in a tradition of artlessness. Skirts show no sign of appearing on the man in the street, although Gaultier has been promoting them for years. His most recent catwalk version was a sari wrapped around the waist under a jacket, falling to the instep and swinging with the wearer’s manly stride. Very nice, but not likely to catch on until men finally remember the comfortable tunics of the very distant past.

Men have already recovered the masculine long hair, jewelry, and purses of medieval times. Skirts may appear some day (that’s a prediction) but probably with a military flavor, the kind built into the Scottish kilt or the battle dress of Roman soldiers. Meanwhile, lovers of spectacle will have to content themselves with drag, which gives intermittent delight to its watchers and wearers, even if so far, it hasn’t made an appearance at summit meetings.