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Decoding Fashion, Redefining Masculinity
The things you see these days. There's a man in the shower, naked, a great big man who could be a truck driver, a boxer, or a football player ... An archetypal male, with a shaved head and determined gestures, radiating the confidence that comes from an unexamined relationship with one's gender.
He is covering his body with a soft, white bath foam, the big brute. The camera continues to focus on his massive biceps, his athletic torso. Already the foaming gel that slides down the skin and muscles of this tough guy produces a vaguely unsettling effect.... But when this latter-day Hercules, who is black by the way, realizes that he is being filmed, and addresses the audience, the real surprise hits: in a falsetto, a man imitating a woman's voice, the big guy explains his preference for the product, parodying the movements and demeanor of girls doing a detergent commercial.
Another scene. A hall is crowded and overheated, as is required on these occasions; a select audience has gathered to view the new collection of a designer who built her fortune on the strength of her scandalous creations. In her day, the designer worked with a band that built its reputation on shattering the Anglo-Saxon taboo against insulting the queen; she later contributed to the postmodern redefinition of fashion by reinventing the corset, crinolines, and other Victorian systems for constricting the body. The audience, therefore, awaits this season's new outrage. Nobody knows what it willbe.
On the runway there appears, amidst general excitement, a man, wobbling and swaying on a pair of stiletto heels ... but not a transvestite, that's old hat, ever since the evening news started carrying coverage of fashion shows. This is a real man. A man's man.
Scandal! Lots of coverage guaranteed in all the media the next day, which is one of the reasons for a fashion show. There is more. In the local section of a regional daily (and on the Internet!), but already poised to leap into the pages of a national newsweekly, there is a summer silly-season news story from Italy: the lifeguards of the Adriatic beachfront, renowned for their much acclaimed virility, are going to pose nude for a calendar. They will thus join a group of Milanese advertising executives and the entire population of a Ligurian resort town, who have posed nude for calendars of their own.... These are collateral effects, on a smaller scale, of the popularity of the film The Full Monty and the success of the Pirelli pinup calendar.
These three minor events occurred over the course of the last few months in contemporary Western media territory, an undifferentiated space that ranges from American television all the way out to the Italian provinces. The commercial with a football fullback who makes fun of himself, a runway presentation with men—real men—teetering on high heels, and the calendar with lifeguards in their birthday suits offer an accurate representation of three degrees of the same theme.
What we are talking about is the way that masculinity and that which is masculine is typically conceived, depicted, and idealized today. We could, of course, mention a vast array of other signals that are zinging across the galaxy of global culture.
Fragments of the once solid construct of Western masculinity—or its image in terms of spectacle—are scattering on their own, spinning away in all directions.
The "crisis of the male" has become a cliché, a prefabricated topic ready to be trotted out in television debates, movies, and articles; the recent worldwide furor over Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky constitutes the most visible instance of the weakness of today's man within a context that has been exclusively favorable to male prerogatives: politics. The crossfire to which males are subjected these days—in the form of protests and questioning of gender identity and depiction of a general contemporary male perplexity and confusion—constitutes one of the most frequent and popular ploys of media communications and of fashion, which is, so to speak, the reified, objectified version of that communication transformed into tangible, salable products.
If, in reality, the crisis of the male is just a fashion, that doesn't mean that it is insignificant. Fashion, along with advertising and popular entertainment, are specific expressions of the surface layers of culture, but they deal with material that originates at a far deeper level. Fashions don't originate out of a clear blue sky. They move "in the direction that the wind is already blowing," as John C. Flugel wrote as early as 1930.
This doesn't mean we should assume that men of tomorrow will wear high heels (to the office, or to a football game?) because "we have reached this point" in a fashion runway presentation, but rather that the time we live in is beginning to question the rough shell that covers the male gender, a shell made up of gestures, poses, and states of mind that have "powerfully" characterized men in their external manifestations as much as in the way that men see themselves: i.e., a much more important change is under way.
Why is this happening? After all, the mask of "virile" masculinity has been a constant of the twentieth century, giving a face to the male domination that seems to be the natural state of things in the Western world.
Cracks in this wall began to appear shortly after the Second World War. Writing in Los Angeles in 1944, Theodore Adorno expressed an open mistrust of "the virile attitude, expressing independence, confidence in the sense of command, and the tacit complicity of all males" in the "caprices of the ruler." A certain caution regarding the celebration of the one-dimensional male ought to have been suggested by the intrinsic affinities between images of virility and totalitarian regimes. The cult of the virile personality of the "chief" served to legitimate authoritarian governments, as was quite evident in the propaganda and popular culture organized by the cultural apparatuses of various authoritarian regimes when, in the twenty-year period from 1922 to 1942 (the period extending from the first establishment of Fascism to its greatest planetary expansion), "strong men" ruled 53 of the 65 existing sovereign states.
The man's man, however, was virtually unchallenged through the Fifties and Sixties. The decade of the Seventies promised the opportunity for a redefinition of genders; it was rejected. The return to normality in the Eighties concealed in the shadows the wrinkles and other signs of decline long evident on the "hard-boiled" physiognomy of masculinity.
Despite an interesting, and possibly suspect, correspondence between the new critique of masculinity and the recent uptick in consumption of cosmetics and makeup for men, there is no actual external threat to the male "ruling class," aside from the sheer inertia of its own unresolved internal contradictions. The subordinate status of women is still a universal state of affairs, here and there concealed behind a facade of political correctness. Suffice it to cite the statistics on female unemployment in Europe or women's wages in the United States: the picture is quite clear
If we take a careful look at the actual distribution of power in government hierarchies and major corporations all the way down to labor relations in the smallest and grittiest companies, we will quickly see that nothing has really changed. Moreover, the so-called crisis of the male is not matched by any crisis in the male esthetic canons that serve as the template—in feminine terms as well—for the ways in which society imagines, desires, and shapes women: think of "models" from Barbie to Claudia Schiffer or consider the invasion of female nudity into advertising, and we must agree that success is still smiling upon clichés that cannot be considered anything but old-style sexism.
Even though the male remains firmly in control, he implodes, collapsing due to internal fatigue, and as his image vanishes, all that remains is the empty shell of his desires. The man's man could be the real Y2K bug.
The reasons for the implosion of masculinity are numerous, going well beyond issues of gender specificity. In the essays that make up this book, several of them are explored: changes in the roles and conditions of life, and in the modes of production that affect men and women in diverse, though not different, ways.
But at least one reason for the general decline in the man's man is implicit in the internal dynamics of the communications and consumption of fashion, and in the economics of the spectacle that moderates relationships among people and between people and objects, A cynical and materialistic (and, therefore, masculine?) response to the question posed by the metamorphosis of the male can be formulated, beginning with considerations of the "immaterial" value of goods: the image of uniform, unnuanced virility is just not as profitable as is its opposite.
As we now know—and clothing offers just one of the more evident instances—goods contain economic value in their immaterial aspects, consisting of the cultural references that they express, the information and the signs that they incorporate. To offer just one example, a pair of jeans and a double-breasted suit are not actually very different, any more than a miniskirt and a woman's tailored outfit.
But they are different in terms of what Baudrillard calls "sign value." They create a different appearance, they modify the identity of the person who wears them. It is only a question of appearance, obviously, but in terms of appearance it is an important question.
After all, forms express the spirit of the time. As anyone walking around in the streets of present-day Florence (or Manhattan) dressed in leotard would soon experience directly, the sign value of clothes coincides with their function. This aspect of the substance of goods is highly valued in modern culture, and part of sign value is gender identity. It is precisely upon the possibility of expressing sign value, through design and communications, that the fashion industry is focusing to create added value.
For that matter, the true function of commercial communications lies in the production of a shared view, a "common sense." The fashion and communications industries, by transforming the symbolic into economics, contribute to the creation, selection, and manipulation of new cultural images and facts, just as in botany, there is a constant quest for new hybrids and crossbreeds, better suited to specific purposes.
In the field of fashion, the primary requirement is to create goods and images that incorporate the greatest possible concentration of sign value and that are, for exactly this reason, easily replaceable and interchangeable. Nothing should be definitive and final in fashion. In order to allow all fashions to be the "very latest" the "last thing," none actually can be.
Under the effect of fashion, the figure of the body, its movements, and its poses are continually being modified by the dynamic of signs.
Men's suits, which once lasted for a lifetime, corresponded to an idea of the body that remained unchanged. Suits and clothing that must change continually take for granted that the body is flexible and undetermined, along with the body's mental image.
The fashion industry has learned to control the flow of signs that generate this metamorphosis of the body.
The consumption of fashion, and the various forms of communication that accompany that consumption, tend in this context to become autonomous cultural expressions, freed from such external presuppositions as tradition and religious ideological conventions. From this point of view, the rigidity and the strict codification that were once characteristic of male identity, and which were "depicted" in men's fashion, have been outmoded, discarded to make way for the possibility of a far more nuanced, complex, and diversified range of variants on possible identities. This, in turn, translates into a far greater array of possible forms of consumption, that is, a greater circulation of goods. In other words, when a unified male identity was replaced by a manifold identity, wardrobes multiplied to match each of the possible new identities.
The motivation of the fashion industry and communications business, from this point of view, is quite evident: the more nuances of identity there are, the more possibilities there are for desire to be generated or stimulated, and the more suits, outfits, and accessories can be sold.
The vexed question of the length of men's hair, first posed successfully by the Beatles in the Sixties, the first planetary debut of the long-running road show, "Redefinition of Masculine Style," is another example. It seemed like a matter of crushing importance, the end of an eternal order in the conventions and confusion of the sexes, a metaphor of the disorders that were to ensue; it was actually a mere premise for a new universe of consumption that was advancing ineluctably.
Driven by the diversification triggered by the fashion business, the masculine shell is gradually becoming so thin that it is vanishing entirely, allowing a glimpse of something else whose final outline is not yet clearly defined, though the process itself is eminently evident.
If the image is separated from the thing it represents, it becomes autonomous, objective per se, and is easier to decipher, manipulate, and hijack for use in other forms and contexts. Even masculinity, the stereotypical archetype, has become, paradoxically, the outcome of a "project," a "design."
The problem is that it is precisely masculinity as such that is viewed as definitive, immanent, incorporating into its very nature rigidity that can withstand all events. A real man is a man of steel; a man with feet of clay is a metaphor for the negation of a real man. In the face of the expectation of immobility over time, the slightest appearance of change immediately becomes a threat and a shock. Humphrey Bogart, no longer young—at the time of The African Queen—was very concerned that the wrinkles of his face, the source of much of his charisma as a man with a past, might be canceled by the lights of the set, so that he might be made to seem like a "different" man, somehow less male.
If, however, the weight of the masculine world seems to press down on the male, we should also remember that the type of the "tough guy" male, who "scorns everything that doesn't reek of smoke, leather, and shaving cream" is not an absolute and immutable datum, but a cultural construct that coincided with the phase of the full and flourishing development of modernity. The type of the man's man, personified on a popular level in the faces of the actors of suspense, detective, and Western movies from the Thirties to the Fifties, flowed off of the silver screen into the alloy used to cast a visual image of masculinity that was manipulated by an organized system of production that, on the one hand, enormously increased the possibility of control over the economy, while on the other was widely experienced as a sharp reduction of the power of individuals over their own lives. On all of the faces of "tough guys" we can see, alongside the violence that will be unleashed with the next plot twist, a harshness imposed by the need to accept the stakes set by an external threat: a determined invader, a rival racket, a corrupt society. And it was by giving a face to the Everyman who was dealing with adaptation to modernity that photography and the movies burst onto the scene during the years between the two world wars.
Nowadays, the media game of which fashion is making use, the game of the spectacular scandal, derives from the enormous excitement generated by the reversal of the stereotype of male into a stereotype of crisis. It is the old trick employed to such good effect in the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes.
There is a fragment of powerful truth in every male image that does not correspond to the canons of male style, because each of these images allows us to glimpse another possibility, more or less improbable in reality but already visible in the world of the spectacle. The use that fashion makes of the male image constitutes the frontier where the image of the spectacle challenges common sense. Therefore, the question of the male image in fashion is, nowadays, the most interesting point of observation of the central role that fashion now plays in the everyday life of postindustrial societies
Reference to the crisis of males and masculinity operates as a background metaphor for the countless discourses, vignettes, and references that constitute the narrative of the present day in the everyday spectacle. There, for example, there is always a perplexed, muddled male behind, and mirroring, every "successful" woman. Again, the "successful" woman is just as much an imaginary construction of commercial culture. Or, for another example, in the worldwide advertising spot, once a secondary theater for the deeds of the man's man, we now increasingly see "ominicchi," to use a term coined by the late Italian author, Leonardo Sciascia: pathetic little men, dazed, turned to jelly in the face of a perfect woman; at least, perfect in terms of compatibility with the imaginary world of merchandise.
Both of these dialectical situations juxtaposing a man and a woman, in any case, happily find a new equilibrium, a resolution, in a shared faith in new models of consumption. The troubled picture of gender confusion and the relations between the sexes is calmed and brightened, according to the metaphors of fashion, by a new automobile, a new electric appliance, or a new set of clothing.
|The Invisible Man||44|
|Manufacturing Men's Wear||52|
|The Comedy of Errors||64|
|Tonight, Under My Tongue, Baby||84|
|Mickey Rooney and the Downsizing of Man||100|
|Men of Marble||106|
|Odysseus and Male Cunning||114|
|There Is a Savage in the Future of Man||130|
|From Here to There: Maleness as a Fluctuation Gender||138|
|Vicissitudes of an Inventory||144|
|New Media, New Men||170|
|The Future Adam||180|