Extraordinary changes have come to the world of men’s clothing, allowing for an unexpected burst of diversity and individual expression. Suddenly the old codes and rules no longer apply. The uniforms, at least the civilian ones, have been discarded. They have gone all “vive la différence!” Today men are dressing like an assortment, not like a unit. Men in their 30s and 40s, unlike their dads, aren’t corporate conformists—they are freelance dandies.
Some men are even dressing like women. Not in the sense that they look “girly,” although we do see the occasional feminine touch, and some designers, like J. W. Anderson and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, are doing a sort of drag for men. But even unambiguous he-men are dressing with the same spirit as women. They clothe to make a statement, not to prevent nudity. They want to stand out. They want to show that they get it.
The numbers don’t lie. Growth in menswear is now outpacing that of women’s fashion, with menswear sales up 5 percent in 2014. Guys are buying limited-edition bags and bespoke hoodies and rhinestone-encrusted sweaters. Suddenly men have something to prove. They are now equal as fashionistas, following trends and designers and runways just like the girls.
We can see this revolution as a socio-economic sea change. The corporate world is no longer a dependable patriarchy where we work on and on until they loyally hand us a gold watch and a comfy pension. Work is now a risky game of free agency in which pensions are insecure and a man is always looking to move up before he’s moved out, knowing he’ll likely get canned before he can collect retirement, replaced by someone his kid’s age.
Fewer men go to the office nine-to-five now. If they do it’s likely gone casual, at least part-time. While this is often presented as a leveling of the playing field, it’s more of a blue-collarization of former execs. This hasn’t been an easy fashion transition for that ex-suit, whose weekend kit is likely pro-sports jerseys, joke T-shirts, dad jeans, and Seinfeld sneakers.
It’s murky out there. The Internet and a slowing economy have spawned a new generation of cottage industries. Many men are independent contractors, working from Starbucks, and have adopted a hipster guise that proclaims, “I am the boss of me.” Lawyers are dressing like cowboys. Billionaires see ties as something out of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing! I mean, look at how great men look. Your accountant now looks like an Alaskan gold prospector. Your tech guy has a full tat sleeve under a made-to-measure shirt. Your blue jeans look like they ate asphalt off a Vincent Black Shadow, albeit artisanally. Our jobs may be dull, but we make up for it by dressing like characters from Jack London or Joseph Conrad. We look remarkably authentic—we are true individuals. Even though we aren’t quite sure what that means.
Recently I was looking at vintage photos of football games in the 1930s. Every man was in a suit, with a white shirt, a tie, a hat. They could have just left a board meeting or funeral. So civil. Today’s stadium is in a barbarian mass-rally mode, with legions of face-painted wackos who look like they scaled Hadrian’s Wall. American football fans color-coordinate en masse, bodies decorated in team colors, wearing Day-Glo Afro wigs or sporting big cheese-wedge hats or Asterix Viking horns. The Huns had nothing on this tribal lot.
Uniformity is gone. Today we are bearded, tattooed, and behatted. Some of us are dressed for the 19th century. Others dress for the 23rd, thinking the future has to be an improvement. Forget drag—many males now dress for life on an androgynous planet, where we change sex every so often like ginkgo trees. At times I realize that I am so free to express myself it makes me want to put on a pinstripe suit.
But what is this mass-cultural menswear flux really about? In my more cynical moments I think it’s all about money; in other words, fashion. In our plutocratic celebritocracy we are, more than ever, driven by conspicuous consumption. We dress to look filthy rich, even if we’re not. Probably because looking like we belong to the elite may be our only shot at getting into it. Be a billionaire or be taken for one.
The real rich, of course, are as casual as any earthlings. They have learned secretive splendor, how to dress rich without gilding and festooning themselves. They have discovered four-figure blue jeans, limited-edition sneakers, and couture tees. To the uninitiated they look like subway riders, and they are even safe walking among them, but they know one another by discreet logos and the social cues of undercover ritziness.
What I see as the biggest change for menswear in 2016 is that there is now an industrialsized men’s fashion world. It’s about designers, not tailors. It’s about this season, not this decade. And yes, men’s runway shows are finally like women’s: mad displays of showstopping drama and flagrant oddity designed specifically to activate the paparazzo or selfie trigger finger. Looks derive from Mongol hordes, Edwardian dandies, alien visitors, and, of course, the women’s runway. Pricey exotica dominates designer shows and stocks avant-garde boutiques with gimmickry that will be old news by the time it’s ready for the dry cleaner. After attending the spring men’s shows I wondered exactly how many wealthy hairstylists, window dressers, rock stars, and art dealers there are among us to buy these bizarro items that are more costume than apparel.
But we men have options, more than ever before. What to buy now? How can we use clothing to enrich our lives and distinguish us from the herd?
The Suit Has Been Working Out
Over the last decade, the suit, while no longer the requirement it once was, has remained an essential modernist garment, streamlining us while providing lots of pockets. But we’ve seen a revolution in silhouette. Today’s leaner, more fit bodies demand suits to match, and Thom Browne boldly made the inevitable move, shortening the jacket, the sleeves, and trousers to the extent that you have a realistic idea of the body inhabiting the cloth. Browne got some snickers for a year, but eventually the entire world followed his lead. Innovations in suiting mean that tailored clothing from the likes of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein offers the flexibility of athletic clothes in a formal look. Another tailoring revolutionary is J. Crew, which has quietly mutated from a respectable catalog-basics company to a leading purveyor of classical men’s clothing with a perfect rendition of the current fit in really fine fabrics at astoundingly good prices—not to mention shoes of a quality rarely seen outside New York and London. The other revolution in tailoring is color. We’re not just wearing blue blazers and gray and navy suits anymore. The whole spectrum is opening up. Bottega Veneta’s suits really blaze in red and orange.
I love what’s new, but I also want clothes that will be in style in 2020. That means classics with an edge. The Dries Van Noten runway show might have lobsters on a blazer, but then the stuff in the stores looks timeless. You won’t see any gimmicks at A.P.C., the French brand founded by Tunisian Jean Touitou, who is as close to being a philosopher as a fashion designer can get. I also dig the intelligence of Rag & Bone, which makes cool clothes that don’t raise their voice. A.P.C. and Rag & Bone, incidentally, make the best jeans. Supreme, the Hermès of the skateboard set, makes my favorite khakis ever, an old military style with reinforced seat, button fly, and fob pocket—so good, I bought a lifetime supply just in case.
Workers of the World
Sometimes trends are irresistible. This is the moment for a luxurious denim work shirt. Not only are these indigo shirts beautiful in color, they are also blue-collar. You will not be mistaken for a politician in one, or a news presenter, but you might pass for an artisanal-cheese baron or a sculptor. And they go nicely with a suit, without a tie, of course. They make me feel like a working man, which I am. I profit from my own labor, not that of others. See? Look at my shirt!
The Necktie, in Transition
The necktie was once the preeminent white-collar signifier, and while it has little significance today as a rich man’s accessory, it is a requirement of the professional stooge: the congressman, the attorney, and the television talking head. And so even though I own many beautiful ties—Hermès still makes the best, with the wittiest patterns and most-vivid colors—I can rarely bring myself to tie one on. I guess the one I feel most comfortable in is my rare vintage Calvin Curtis yellow silk with a black dollar-sign pattern. It addresses the very nature of the tie. A class formality. The more I see men in ties the more that neckwear suggests a noose, a leash, an umbilical cord. There was a sort of biker’s bar in Manhattan where they tended to cut the ties off men who entered there. But I can’t help thinking that those old dudes on Harleys who hung there were actually tie-wearing orthodontists and portfolio analysts by the light of day. Give me a scarf instead. The worst that could happen is they’ll think I’m French.
The Outstanding Standouts
I remember when it was hard to find a three-piece suit, or a windowpane plaid, or saddle shoes or gray bucks or Indian madras or chambray shirts. Today you can find those special items to differentiate you from the herd because some men learned their history and sought out atypical pieces on eBay or by any means necessary. You don’t need to have a Ph.D. in dandyism to know about double monk straps, half-Windsor tie knots, ticket pockets, waistcoat slips, surgeon’s cuffs, and Fair Isle sweaters. The environment may be failing, wars may be breaking out, politics may be going insane, but at least it seems that we’ll look good and eat well as we move into the apocalypse. I like to think it’s a late phase of evolution—survival of the hippest.
Photos: Getty Images