It’s no longer necessary to find a term for men who dress well or have an interest in fashion – they are simply men.
Designer fashion is no longer just for gay men and Europeans. Welcome to the age of sartorial enlightenment, in which the average male has shed schlumpiness for style.
The scene was a Williamsburg restaurant, packed with the usual array of hip beard-farmers. There was a cookie-cutter likeness about the men in the room, an aesthetic Brooklyn lockstep. Everyone seemed to have gotten the same style memo, the one that called for cardigans with granddad shawl collars, for select brands of pricey Japanese denim and for glasses that make you look like you’ve read too much Ayn Rand.
About the last name you’d expect to invoke in a room full of young fops in highly considered finery is that of Joe Namath. And yet suddenly I found myself thinking about Broadway Joe. You remember him, of course, the quarterback legend and media gadfly, a self-styled cartoon whose athletic prowess was pretty nearly overshadowed by his randy off-the-field antics. Goofy-handsome and with gull-wing bangs swooping back from his forehead, Joe had woolly pecs, a dense Happy Trail and a wardrobe that called to mind a coal-town Oscar Wilde.
He wore shearling and raccoon and posed in pantyhose for a Hanes Beautymist commercial. He was an unabashed narcissist with a fondness for natty green blazers. He liked rump-hugging trousers with taut notch-pockets. He wore Brut cologne, silk foulards and white cleats on the field. Unembarrassed in his embrace of fashion, Namath was way out in front of the culture, a sartorial forerunner of all the athletes who have lately morphed from slobs wearing saggers into designer sandwich boards crowding the front rows at Versace shows.
He was – if you’ll forgive the use of a lint-covered term from the cultural sock drawer – a metrosexual avant la lettre. Unlike the hippies and gender benders and rocker peacocks who were his near contemporaries, Joe Namath wasn’t toying with masculinity. His liking for nice clothes was no particular “tell” for sexual preference. That he wore coats made from the sheared pelts of expensively farmed rodents did not mean Joe Namath secretly liked men: it meant he liked mink.
Looking around the restaurant that night at all the guys wearing scarves knotted just-so or herringbone tweeds from Rag and Bone or Adam Kimmel jumpsuits or shirts produced by the heritage labels whose revival has evidently become a point of soaring national pride, I realized that Namath may have been slighted by historians of fashion. Maybe he is the liminal figure theory-heads are always rooting around for. Maybe, unacknowledged and in those long-gone days, it was Broadway Joe who began the inexorable march of butch dandies into the mainstream.
It seemed pointless to speculate on whether the guys in this room, who clearly had given thought and care to what they had on, looked stylish on account of being gay or straight or American or, uh, French. Style is learned, not genetic. “Chic,” as the Ango-Irish opera designer Patrick Kinmonth once remarked, “is nothing. But it’s the right nothing.” The men in that room had done their homework. They could probably rattle off the names of the right-nothing labels in their sleep.
You might, of course, suppose the phenomenon to be New York specific, or limited to the coasts. But a survey of the landscape suggests we may have entered an age of sartorial advancement. At the very least, there has been a course correction. A generation raised on the insult-to-the-eyes that was casual Fridays has suddenly discovered a novel new uniform: the suit. The last person anyone wants to dress like these days is Tim Allen.
Thus the frumpy Dockers and the men’s version of mom jeans and the oversize, shirts billowing like jibs have been bagged up and shipped to Goodwill. Even dot-com geeks have slowly begun moving away from the hoodies and sneakers, knit-hat-and-sweatshirt Smurf look. In Silcon Valley these days, the stealth signifier of status is that throwback to the glory days of haberdashery: brightly patterned socks.
I asked the experts at the recent men’s-wear shows in Milan how had the change come about. How do you account for the apparent spike in the fashion IQ of the average American male? Is it fallout from years of so-called reality TV shows, the ones where anointed gay tastemakers descend on some slob in his mother’s basement and sprinkle him with pixie dust?
It can’t be that, really. For one, the gay stereotypes don’t hold up. The guys from the corner of Queer and Gay Streets tended to dress like jokers in square-toed shoes and whiskered jeans and the silly muscle shirts one associates with certain preening news anchors.
“Now, everyone knows everything,” Wendell Brown, a senior fashion editor at Esquire, told me recently. Growing up in the 1980s, Brown felt forced to hide his issues of GQ under the bed to avoid detection, not quite ready to come out to his parents as a Perry Ellis fan. “We are so far beyond that whole metrosexual phase, that ‘Is he gay?’ stigma.”
Brown knew it had all changed, he said, when a female colleague in his office, an untrendy type whose boyfriend was a former frat boy, asked him if he could hook her fellow up with a suit from Thom Browne.
There was a time when the notion of a good old boy coveting one of Browne’s shrunken suits – the ones with the high-water pants and jackets barely skimming one’s bottom – would have been more than implausible, a “Zoolander” fantasy. Yet barely a decade ago, when Browne was still catering to a select handful of clients and had no wholesale business, his customer base was already skewing toward in-the-know Wall Street types, said Tom Kalenderian, the executive vice president of Barneys New York.
“You wouldn’t have expected that they were going to buy something so strong,” Kalenderian told me. “But the learning curve is very steep.”
Such are the effects of the rushing slipstream of information, and of a solipsism so pronounced that our national fixation is with becoming ever better curated versions of ourselves, that leading the average American man to fashion is hardly the struggle it once was.
“The past 15 years have been all about the mainstreaming of style,” Michael Hainey, the deputy editor of GQ, told me. “In the past there were no E! Entertainment shows about what people wore on the red carpet,” he added. “There was no fashion commentary as part of a man’s daily life. With the exception of Joe Namath, most sports stars in the past took a ‘Who cares?’ attitude about dressing.”
That men do, now gave all the lunks of the world permission to exit their man caves and go shopping, to acquire a smattering of knowledge about design and fit and to stop deluding themselves that it’s somehow more manly to look like a bum.
“I’ve been to shows in Milan and sat next to NBA All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony,” Dan Peres, the editor in chief of Details, said. “And when the show is over you can turn to him and say, ‘Hey, Carmelo, what did you think about the gladiator sandals Donatella Versace sent down the runway?’ ” Surely it’s a sign of some sort of cultural shift — the kind Broadway Joe might be proud to have set in motion — that, when Peres posed the question to Anthony, the 6-foot-8 Knicks forward responded with polite and knowledgeable interest rather than punching him out.
Guy Trebay writes for the New York Times style section and is a Pulitzer Prize nominee.