Clothes Make the Man: Thoughts on NYT’s Men’s Style

Earlier this month, the New York Times debuted a new print section in their newspaper- the […]

Bryan J. / 4.16.15

Earlier this month, the New York Times debuted a new print section in their newspaper- the first new print section of the paper in a decade- and that new section is dedicated to Men’s Style. It says a lot that one of the great media companies in history would decide in 2015 to invest ink and paper in any subject matter. Even if the section insert is only once a month, if the New York Times is getting into men’s fashion, perhaps we should be turning our attention there as well. Says Men’s Style editor Jim Windolf:

american-manhood-1952Today The Times unveils Men’s Style, the newspaper’s first new section since 2005. It’s a response to the recent boom in the men’s fashion industry and connected change in the way men present themselves… In recent years, men have taken a seemingly greater interest in how they look. Things that did not seem so interesting back when most men were content to look like slobs may seem worth thinking about now. We’re here to help…

I have an almost anthropological interest in men — what they think about, where they go, what they think is cool, why they do the boneheaded things they do, how their public personae differ from their private selves. Some of this thinking may inform the stories in Men’s Style; on the other hand, sometimes you just want to let the world know when there is a cool new watch out there.

The articles from this new section have been fun so far: interviews with actors, the aforementioned latest news regarding wrist watches, tools for the gentleman farmer, and “Should Grown Men Use Emojis?” (spoiler alert: it has to do with how one defines manhood). All around, the section looks to be a fine place for men who can afford $2,000 leather satchels to converse about manhood through the medium of cuff-links.

Commenting on the launch, The Atlantic dubs this development part of a “Menaissance” in fashion:

indyjonessatchelHere’s one reason to love the section: It also carries the default assumption that fashion itself is becoming, quickly, a relatively egalitarian proposition. “The Menaissance,” if you will, is upon us.

“Men are spending more on apparel and footwear than ever before,” the market research firm Euromonitor International reports—so much so that, globally, menswear is expected to reach $40 billion in sales by 2019. Matters of style—which encompass not just clothing, but also grooming and etiquette and that ephemeral thing we tend of group under the umbrella of “charm”—are quickly becoming more of an equal-opportunity affair.

Feel free to click around on some of those links- they’re really fascinating and unexpected (did you know man-bags, man-purses, satchels, whatever-you-call-em are a $9 billion dollar industry?). But notice how none of the commentators have been able to avoid the egalitarian context of a new Men’s Style section of the paper- no longer is fashion the exclusive domain of women.

Which is not to suggest there’s an “us/them” dichotomy going on here, as if Mbird’s men are somehow aloof to the trend, or that we haven’t covered it before. Last year in New York, John Zahl opened the 2014 Spring Conference with a reflection on identity and presentation (super helpful and memorable as an unfashionable West Virginian in New York for the long weekend). Our own Sarah Condon posted last January on self-justification by clergy style (to collar or not to collar?), which resonated across gender boundaries. And don’t get a southerner started on the appropriate season to wear seer-sucker suits. Who doesn’t try to manage first impressions? Who doesn’t use clothing to communicate something about their identity?

Instead of going in the “style” part of the new print section, let’s look at the “men’s” part, particularly in light of larger conversations regarding the state of manhood in 2015. On one hand, men are spending more money on fashion than they ever have, but on the other hand, it was less than a year-and-a-half ago we were talking about a mancession instead of the menaissance (oi, those words make me cringe!). Whether it’s the gender-gaps in academic achievement or the flight of men to man-boy caves with X-Boxes, Archer reruns, and Seth Rogan, the rise of men’s fashion in 2015 is correlating with a larger trend of men searching for identity apart from whatever that historic definition of “manly” used to be.

13486017463_12fab5f639_bIn that article about masculinity and emoji, the author interviewed Bruce Feirstein, author of 1982 best selling satire book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, about how masculinity defines itself in 2015.

“When I wrote the book, things were simpler than they are now,” [Feirstein] said. “I don’t know if, in the year 2015, defining what a ‘real man’ would do or not do is relevant, because the culture has changed. I don’t know if you can make these grand pronouncements anymore.”

As deep a question as that might be, and as important as it might feel to answer it, maybe trying to define “what is manly” is fundamentally unhelpful. That rabbit hole of questions pretty much boils down to law and self-justification: “am I a man? yes or no?”  If the law for manliness used to be real men drink beer, provide for the family, and watch sports, is that really any different than real men have tailored suits or men wear slick watches? The new boss is the same as the old boss- it’s still law and it still crushes. We could just as easily throw in “real men lift” or “real men hunt” for good measure.

Conversely, I have a fond memory of the first time my father called me a man, unqualified by a particular law or work or expensive wristwatch. It was in a birthday card from my early 20’s, while I was still in college, and he wrote to me “I’m so proud of the man you’ve become and I can’t wait to see the life you’re going to build for yourself.” It brought tears to the eyes of his shaggy, unshowered, hoodie wearing, flip-flop loving fashion nightmare of a son. The difference between him saying “I’m proud of the man you’re going to be” and “I’m proud of the man you’ve become” is potent- not unlike the potency of Jesus’s eschatological thumbs up, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Manhood-by-imputation, graciously given from the outside, doesn’t sell cologne, so it’s unlikely to be seen in the new Men’s Style section. But as long as God is doling out solutions to sin, fixing hearts, minds, and souls, imputing identity alongside righteousness, maybe he can do something about the wardrobe too?

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” ~Zechariah 3:3-4