Tourniquet Trousers and Straining Armholes

Can men’s clothing possibly get any tighter?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via GQ and 20th Century Fox.

What is the soundtrack to our age? Is it drones buzzing overhead? Relentless cellphone yakking? Rattling pill bottles or jackhammering condo construction? No. It’s the sound of splitting seams. And not just because the population is getting fatter—it undeniably is, but that’s not why we are gathered here today. Call it body-conscious bespoke. Call it castration couture. We are here to talk about the current epidemic of hyperfitted, nut-mangling menswear.

It all started when pants and jackets got tighter and shorter—a high-fashion Thom Browne thang—and we all started walking around dressed like über-chic ventriloquists’ dummies. But the shrinking did not stop there. In the past decade, the highly influential Browne effect reached a wider audience. As a result, mainstream men’s clothing has become body-hugging to the point of obscenity. The blousy business shirts of the past century are a distant memory. Those crepe-y, drape-y, boxy suits of yore have long since been cut up and made into pot holders and cleaning rags. For today’s man—but not for Today’s Man, which bit the dust in 2003—snug is the mot-du-jour.

Turn on the telly and what do you see? The guns of Anderson Cooper or Michael Strahan screaming to be liberated from the constricting sleeves of their spiffy suits. Channel surf and you will be confronted with a cavalcade of GI Joe dolls—Andre from Empire, the NFL preshow commentators, even Jimmy Kimmel!—all stuffed into distractingly tight-tailored garments. A flip through November’s GQ yields a sea of men—Thor’s Tom Hiddleston in skin-tight chalk stripes, Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith in constricting corduroys—doing their level best to smile while attired in pancreas-squishing ensembles.* When’s it going to stop? Do we want it to stop? Not especially, but I am curious about what it all means.

Let’s start with a little history lesson. Back in the Renaissance—wars, plagues, and great fashion! … I remember it as if it were yesterday—drape-y clothing was considered a mark of prestige. Adornment with ample, lavish fabric indicated that one had wealth and a high rank. Yes, we wore tights—the first skinny jeans!—but that was just to contrast with the blousy largesse of our capes and doublets. What was to stop poor people enrobing their persons with velvets and brocades? Everything! Special sumptuary laws dished out brutal punishment to those who swagged above their stations.

Sumptuary laws can be explained as follows: If you were posh, these complicated edicts permitted you to do posh things and wear drape-y posh clothes; but if you were a toothless agrarian, you were doomed to wear a skimpy hemp shift. #draughty

And another thing: Drape-y clothing, with its dotted line to biblical times and Greco-Roman deities, not only created the impression that the wearer was high-ranking; it also suggested a high level of spirituality. Hemp-wearers would take one look at your billowing garb and assume you were an avatar, an angel, a saint, or a prophet. Bottom line: You had to be careful back then. If your clothes were très blouson, people would hit you up for money and then expect you to perform bloody miracles.

Whereas loose clothing indicated high rank and lofty thoughts—Moses did not do tight— skimpy garb has, for centuries, telegraphed the exact opposite. Blokes in skinny shark-skin suits were always seen as criminal, sexually promiscuous, downright sleazy, aka fabulous. They wore pinky rings and made their livings facilitating helpful introductions to “exciting” girls named Darlene and Mitzi.

Times have changed. The fitted suits of today have a completely different resonance: In lieu of sex, crime, and sleaze, we have success, power, and … drumroll … CrossFit. Today’s seam-busters are wearing ferociously fitted suits in order to show off those superhero bodies. Why suits? Why not just go for Lycra? Wearing suits allows these overachievers to flaunt their bits without losing social or professional standing. They look hot and virile while also retaining the status and gravitas that comes from wearing a suit: Not only do I have the physique of a fitness professional/porn star, but I am also wealthy and powerful.

Sidebar: Some responsibility for the seam-busting epidemic must be allotted to the designer fashion world for consistently showing new merch on ever skinnier models, thereby tinkering with our preconceived notions regarding male size and silhouette. Those of you not familiar with the latest trends in male models could do worse than to peruse this model agency’s offerings—for me it recalls that AbFab moment when Eddie (Jennifer Saunders) demands that a charity fundraising event be festooned with “pictures of starving-but-attractive children”—which are a favorite with high-fashion brands. Ever wondered what you would look like if you were 6-foot-3, weighed half what you do now, and had a 31-inch chest? Check it out.

Not everyone is walking around wearing scalpel-cut high-priced bespoke sausage casings. There are, in fact, some very notable holdouts: academics, for example. I live near NYU, so my gaze is constantly being assailed by middle-aged university men dressed in billowing, food-stained moderate sportswear. Best-case scenario, they dress like Saul on Homeland, whose persnickety style I like to call “easy-fit normcore for seniors.” I don’t blame these professors, and I am certainly not lobbying for change. If these Saul look-alikes squeezed themselves into Gucci or Prada lounge suits, nobody would listen to their ideas on quantum physics. The takeaway? Tight, in the wrong context, can jeopardize your cred, to mention nothing of making people think you might have an evening job working as a croupier in a second-string casino.

One final thought regarding sumptuary laws: Might there be a case for bringing them back? They would undoubtedly cut some of that whatever-shall-I-wear, is-my-bum-too-big-for-this dithering that has always afflicted women but now affects men, too. Imagine how simple your life would be if you could say, “Listen! I’m not wearing a magenta, devore, stretch-velvet jumpsuit with a matching cape because I am not allowed to … by law.” 

Correction, Nov. 17, 2015: This article originally misspelled Tom Hiddleston’s last name. (Return.)