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Gianni Versace's New Men by Richard Martin
"Man is a prisoner . . ." Socrates, Dialogues of Plato, Phaedo. 62
The freedom of man is an allegory and a figure of speech. Sovereignty, franchise, governance, and cultural autonomy establish the frame for a fabulous freedom, permitting men and women to act in accordance with their own fulfillment. Clothing abets this desire and is a recurrent agent of freedom. But clothingand perhaps the polity and other social libertyis seldom solely liberating and open. Men, as well as women, have long been the victims of fashion.
In the beginning the necktie expressed, first, cleanliness of an under-layer; second, the perimeter of the neck and collar; and, third, the expressive interpretation of a knotting, tethering practice; now the necktie has become a convention of withered utility. At its inception in the seventeenth century, in the era of the Thirty Years War, the cravat or tie was a mark of military conformity and propriety, even as it returned to Paris in commemoration of the French victory at Steinkerque. In the nineteenth century the tie became a bourgeois sign and evolving emblem of the man of business. Gaining more commercial and conventional orthodoxy with every businessman represented in the decades of enterprise and individualism, the tie emerges into the twentieth century as a trim and taut sign of the business establishment. The tie is the simplest indication of the Industrial Age's commercial etiquette, with management following executives, bosses imitating managers, clerks cloning bosses. The convention is especially compelling because, like any vestigial sign, the tie cannot be questioned because its reasonand its cause have become so thoroughly lost and sacredly mysterious. Freud's ahistorical interpretation of the necktie as vector from neck to penis attributed to the already bourgeois necktie an animation that was, by Freud's time, ill-deserved. Invoking reason, the persnickety historian can lament the continued presence in the contemporary wardrobe of an item that has become dissociated from its original meaning and purpose. But the historian's annoying niggling will not loosen the Gordian knot of any neckwear. And much of what we wear today has lost its function and sacrificed its memory to a kind of rote, unquestioning dressing. If we were to start interrogating our habits in dress, we would all become clothing reformers like the stony utopians of the turn of the century. Fortunately, Gianni Versace has taken the initiative and become our era's vehement and unrelenting reformer, demanding change in menswear that begins by shedding the tie and goes from that seemingly simple act to a whole new conception of man in his attire and world.
Of course, if we were only talking about the tie, its cause would seem infinitely small and inconsequential. The tieand its eliminationis not just a matter of a men's style shift, but of a completely different way of identifying men, displacing "man," the gender and the category, from all the long-standing functions of bourgeois life and attire. To see the man without a tie in the 1990s is, in fact, to reconceptualize man. Versace's originality is not fashion nuancing, but deep cultural and personal reidentification of and for men.
Versace makes us be and see a new man, specifically of his and our own sartorial making, but even more generally a man of our era, a man who stands away from the occupationally-determined past, bereft of tie, unfettered by the bourgeois values that are associated with the tie. Who is this new man who is so unabashedly designed, admired, and propagated by Versace?
His characteristics are several and they are culturally important, interpreting our time and commanding a vision for men in the future. In this sense, Versace is the utopian futurist we have always known him to be, and his Samurai-knight Luke Skywalker leathers and breastplates of the early 1980s have brought us logically to his thorough reconsideration of men's roles. This new man is of the future and markedly free. Versace's tour-de-force knowledge of cultural and menswear history does not deny his new man a memory and even an evocative yearning for the past, but Versace's man is not constrained by bourgeois role or history. This is truly a story of freedom and of individualism.
While the necktie reinforces the symmetry of the body, it bears little relationship to the silhouette. Fashion silhouettes have customarily been identified with women, but men's shapes are important as well. Versace is a Cubist and Futurist of our time, insisting upon the male silhouette as broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, and muscular-legged. Long before the gym-built physiques of the late 1980s and 1990s, Versace was specifying the male silhouette in an undeniable indication of the preferred body. Like any body preferred by design, it can be achieved not merely by those who possess its form naturally or by muscle-building construction, but even by those who accept its design principles. The necktie is a delusion, and superfluous to the silhouette that Versace prefers: the very presence of the tie would diminish the extreme triangulation of the torso; the tie which apparently brings the torso into connection with the waist would mitigate Versace's joy in the narrowing of the waist and the conception of the male body as an aggregate of perfect shapes.
Further, in eliminating the necktie, Versace develops and explores the options of the exposed neck and torso. The reason why traditional menswear seems so immediately awkward and geeky beside Versace's futurist ideals is that Versace has not only transformed the silhouette, but has removed the anxieties of the coverings: neck, collar, and tie. If you recall the sportswear of the 1930s and 1940sas exemplified in the Golden Age of Hollywood movie star portraitstheir allure was often in the broad spread of open-collared shirts that would emulate and visually extend the breadth of the shoulders. Like a woman's broad collar or even more like her variable decolletage, the opening up of the collar allows for a freedom we have traditionally associated with ease, comfort, sexual self-expression, and even with the highest expression of style. Versace is well aware of these glamorous 1930s and they are a heritage for his elegant men of today, not only in silhouette, but also in the return of pattern and flamboyant design to men's shirts. These movie starsWilliam Powell, Robert Montgomery, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, and, of course, Gary Cooperoffer a debonair ideal of their era, relaxed in a repose that loosens the tie, wearing a sport jacket with bold shoulders, or even discarding the tie in favor of an open-collared sport shirt. From these ideal images come an alternative to the "tied" bourgeois standard. Versace gives us the magic of these Hollywood idols, along with all their star quality and enduring glamour, in opening up the shirt collar and denying the convention of a tie.
Yet even these stars lived in a world of strict codes that required dressing for dinner and for occasions of business. In our time, a casual style prevails even for a great many business transactions; formality is ebbing away from our conduct of business and Versace is one of the first fashion designers to conceive of fashion for a new generation of men who conduct their affairs through personal expression, by advanced communications, and in a reality not virtual, but fundamentally different from the commerce of the past. Entertainment, fashion, arts, and leisure enterprises are now most often dominated by men who dress down and are often seen without tie and/or jacket. Henry Ford's straitlaced propriety in dark suit and tie is no longer the way of doing business, at least in significant business sectors in Italy and America. With the changing image of the executive as an entrepreneur of less formal sensibilityand even of "Friday casual dressing" for all subordinatesbusiness suits and ties are no longer de rigueur. Menswear has, for the most part, been gradually dressing down and, step by step, deconstructing its stiff tailoring.
Versace has been more decisive. He has chosen not to chip away at male stolidity. Versace is a prophet, making the deliberate choice not to dress down in stages, but to eradicate and reconstruct his new man entirely like a wonderful bionic creature that begins without ever having had the premise of a tie or jacket.
Breaking the mold of the bourgeois man, Versace explores the possibility of the sensuous man. Knowing the taboo of masculine grace and vanity, Versace has confronted contemporary culture with an audacious, even insolent, narcissism of the male. Flaunting male grace with the elegance of a Renaissance prince in evocation of the era of individualism, Versace has chosen to present male beauty. It is not a silhouette derived from womenswear, nor the fabrics or colors associated with womens wear, that Versace seizes to push menswear to a self-aware expression of individualism. Versace projects a strong sense of masculine identity, imbued with myth, empowered by tradition, and made compelling by its absolute, unequivocal strength of conviction. Versace does not compromise: the power is the declaration without any conditions, the attention given to stylistic concept. Superheroes in leather, spectrum, and prodigious physique at South Beach are not designed for the faint of spirit or the uncertain of body or self. Versace designs with determination, not with hesitation.
Arguably, all fashion is compelled by sex and power. Versace's brave men are perhaps no more expressive of sex and power than any other men of fashion, though sex in apparel for Versace can be overt, not just covert, not just straight but provocatively touched by bisexuality or homosexuality. The erotic sensuality of the open neckline is a key element in Versace's imagery. Uncovering the neck and chest risks vulnerability; it incorporates body and clothing more intimately than our convention of impersonal, unexpressive modern menswear. Collar and tie had long suppressed the male chest as an erogenous zone in the Western world, but Versace realizes that any degree of exposure of the chest defines the male body, especially in the male secondary sexual characteristic of chest hair. The man with a tie tells us nothing of the body within and this disaffiliation with the body of the man is society's loss. Puritanical reserve, association of body hair with the animalistic, and other inhibitions had repressed the chest, as on the beaches of the United States (where men wore tank tops even until 1933-35) and in male movie star photoschest hair airbrushed outthrough the 1940s. Versace's deep V-shaped openness at center front often allows the chest to be seen and expressed; his vests even further expose and explore the male body. Exposure of the chest in circumstances of dress, whether modest or radical, is a significant gesture of change for men in the 1980s and 1990s. The cultural root of this baring of the male chest is our contemporary examination of gender and sexuality; an inevitable sign of equivalence to women's traditional decolletage, it is at the same time an anatomical sign of gender difference. Indeed, the sculpture of the male chest is, like that of the female chest, a personal idiosyncrasy (to some degree a given, not a perfect social norm), even if altered in the case of women by bra shaping or even surgery, or in the case of men by gym-pumping and shaving. Versace has opened a new erogenous zone in men, but one that is brought to display and discourse only by the innovation of the designer. That is, the world of David Bartons and Arnold Schwarzeneggers is forever a fiction until a fashion designer makes their muscled and callipygian physicality an option of dress, one for such heroes, but which can also be approached by lesser mortals.
Versace has offered countless alternatives to the closed collar, including a 1980s soft and scooping boat-neck that naturally falls below the clavicle, 1990s zipper fronts that borrow from womenswear in suggesting sartorial ease, and men shown with shirts wholly open, buttoned or tied only at the waist, partly buttoned with placket above turned under, or worn freely untucked and susceptible to breezes. These are all design options indicative of the wide choice and privilege granted to the Versace man to wear the clothing as he sees fit and feels comfortable. Versace defies decorum and prefers self-expression. In most cases, the same shirt or top is versatile and can be worn many ways, once the limitations of the tie and collar are dropped. The anthropologist and cultural historian know that our current curiosity about gender, and the desire to transform gender in this society, can only be accomplished in cultural spectatorship. Foremost among all designers of our time, Versace has used the abandonment of the tie to expose the torso and to recreate our view of the male body in a new way. Versace recently told Amy Spindler in the New York Times (June 30, 1994) of his menswear proportions, "I wanted them to have a swimmer's shape. Ten years ago, it was important to look like Woody Allen or Schwarzenegger. Now it's mixed." Mixing these men is Versace's invention. He creates heroes. But he creates them in an intelligent, cultural manner that serves any man of our time, whether gym-buffed or merely seeking a self-image beyond bourgeois convention.
New clothes can be a brilliant originality and a wonderful invention, and one can praise Versace for this. But to invent a new man, this wondrous, versatile, open, and free man without a tie is something more than ingenuity in the trivial realm of clothes. It is a concept of contemporary man in the tradition of futurism and the speculation about men's lives. Versace gives us the opportunity to break with bourgeois convention, long hardened and oppressive but wholly disingenuous in our time. Versace tells us forcefully that we are not slaves and have nothing to lose but our meaningless, anachronistic neckties. Male or female, we enjoy the gift of Versace's vision for our time and the future. But men in particular have a new image in Versace, a new idealism, a cultural emancipation. Versace creates a new man: no prisoner, but a concept of gender beauty, a figure of freedom.
Author Biography: Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barry Hannah is a renowned contemporary author who resides in Oxford, Mississippi.