A New/Old Masculinity: The Roots of the Menswear Zeitgeist + Sorry, Ladies!

The Brooklyn Circus.


In Brooklyn recently, the missus turned to me as I examined a neat rack of hand-tooled leather belts and said grumpily, “Here we are, in yet another awesome menswear store!” She then clarified (in case I missed the hint), “I’m BORED.”

Michael is, in fact, an extremely energetic lady who believes life should be about maximizing engagement with one’s surroundings. This is a good philosophy, but I did remind her (smugly, perhaps) of all the years I’d spent sitting on couches in the middle of some lady store, reading super old copies of GQ and failing to do a good job of visualizing her in the shirt she inevitably held up for me. (I am terrible at this. I cannot visualize. Lest I paint myself as some sort of Cretan, I regularly offer outfit opinions once the clothes are actually on the body.)


RIP House of Hengst, SF. I spent one million bored hours here, but this is where Michael found her rad wedding dress.


The point is, something has happened in menswear lately, and since I’ve benefited from it tremendously, I’ve wondered a lot about the seeming seachange that allows Americana-inspired stores like Brooklyn Circus to not only flourish, but outshine boutiques specializing in womenswear (and Barney’s for that matter–Michael, I’ve noticed, is almost always behind me, touching the pocket squares and ties longingly after an irritating stint in the other half of the store, which she usually ultimately pronounces “tacky,” or, more generously, “eh.”)




And then I realized: we are in a zeitgeist moment, and somehow guys like me: folks with a Libra love of aesthetics and objects, a romantic view of ruggedness, and an interest in looking to the past for a cool and contained masculinity are in luck. Call it nostalgia if you want, but modern updates on the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and even early-’70s (America’s last “golden age”) are looking way better than our economy.


K & TH in Kurashiki, Japan: everyone loves classic American menswear.


I realize that I could unpack this (and others surely have) in relationship to the recession, the American urge for optimism sublimated into a look backwards instead of ahead during these dark times of post-manufacturing, poor education, and China’s rise on the broken backs of its people and the capitalist model that we’ve pioneered/benefit from. There’s some heavy stuff right there, and it’s real, and very disturbing.

But to divorce the cultural underpinning of nostalgia from this a little bit, there’s certainly a visual benefit to a more grounded, classic style. Instead of seeing this as purely a fantasy of bygone times, maybe we could suit up and remind ourselves to stop trading in “futures” and get to work right now on what’s practical, changeable, and in front of us.

In every time–even the coke-binge of the ’80s–the understated, aesthetically oriented guy has been acknowledged, but never have we been the vanguard of our own movement. The vanguard usually looks something like this:



Which is obviously awesome, but outdated. Remember when the ’80s/early-’90s were back for a minute?


Stop, young ones! This was the WORST decade!


Point is, the look that’s popped up in menswear is appealing because it focuses on what folks like me adore: the classic, grown-up ease of dudes wearing clothes that fit right, look good, and are correct for the occasion.

This moment in time didn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s just that, for once (in my humble opinion), we looked in the right direction. Here, then, are a collection of style icons we owe the current moment in menswear to:


McQueen: always put together, never fussy.


Steve McQueen’s crisp, classic style has “prep resurgence with a West Coast twist” written all over it. He was a glamorous movie star not afraid to tarnish the gold a little. Now that tailored-but-relaxed look is as high-flying as we’re willing to go. Proof?


Band of Outsiders, summer, 2011.


Also, regarding this:


Paul Newman! I will never tire of this photo.


Speaking of Hollywood ruggedness x glamour, you didn’t think I’d leave out my favorite style icon, patron saint of denim, did you?


James Dean in...workwear!


Chambray was actual workwear, and sailors used to look like this:


RANDOM SAILOR decades before DADT repeal reading, uh, Playboy.


The hardscrabble, tortured look of Marlon Brando owed as much to motorcycles, white t-shirts, and flannel as it did to his dark features:


Brando down by the DOCKS.


Look familiar?



Now that I think about it: bleached whites and motorcycles, tailored flannels and chambray shirts: as the upper/lower class mishmash of preppy and workwear continues its beautiful blend, maybe we can find a metaphor there. Maybe America is making something new right now, a real melting pot of past and present, an uncertain future looking that much sharper for it.

Or maybe I can’t help being an optimist, after all.


About Thomas Page McBee

Gentleman first, always. James Dean is my patron saint, poet is my gender. More about me here: www.thomaspagemcbee.com


  1. blevit

    As a nonlady-lady, I have always gazed longingly at menswear and wished I could partake. The women’s ‘versions’ are rarely as good—even when it comes to ‘real’ outdoor wear like North Face etc. J Crew is my best bet, and even then it’s a crap shoot when it comes to color and fit.

    Anyhow, the photo above of Dean in workwear reminded me of one I love of Mitchum. Granted, he’s in prison clothes, but how awesome are they? PS: He was in jail for weed. I love him.

  2. I find this really interesting too as running parallel to 1.) “menswear” trends for (presumably straight and otherwise feminine) women and 2.) how this benefits queer folks/less femme dykes/whatevz and how they interpret it? which isn’t a super astute observation other than “zomg my girlfriend loves those stores too and looks really great in the clothes!” but, yanno. gotta mention it.

    • I think both those points are interesting. Michael has written in an IBC post about being a lady who benefits from menswear trends in womenswear. I think #2, if I’m interpreting you correctly, is a big one: trans folks and queer folks seem to benefit a lot from menswear’s new turn, at least in my community. I know many female-bodied masculine folks who’ve really taken to this look, but I’d be interested in a queer, non-trans perspective on why this is.

  3. Pingback: Timeless Advice: Guys, Sloane Martin Wants You to Dress Better «

IBC LOVES your brain, and we encourage thoughtful, lively discussion. We will, however, moderate comments that are abusive or disrespectful. Stay classy!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: