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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Pants
by Colin Graham
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Men's underwear and fashion. Do you get a feeling of tightness, restriction and itchiness already (half of you anyway)? In the tyrannous age of the image in which we live, and have lived through, one idea, once the mainstay of sense and respectability, has long been silently lost. That is that the back of a man's undergarments should be a large buttonable square of material, which could flap comically if left undone.
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Obviously men's underwear (with its now diversified lexicon tangas, briefs, boxers and still, occasionally, jock-straps) has become sexualised. That's hardly news, but exactly what the sex is that's being sold, somewhere in the image, is more mysterious. As mysterious indeed as what's under the wear, which is still a vague outline of terror in our culture, and the reason why the Alien which emerged from the chest in the movie became an iconic moment the nearest semi-mainstream cinema has come to seeing an erect penis on screen.
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There is much energy expended on the history and meaning of men's underwear. Henry VIII for example turned the codpiece from being a practical device which stopped public dangling to a renaissance form of a sexual arms race. As always with history there are the lessons learned from the ancients the Greeks wore none, the Romans invented them, tying up their togas for athleticism, and thence forever tying up the picture of the male health as a shiny torso straining to do more. And then there is the realm of colonial history in the western world, which tries to sympathise with those cultures it has trampled over. The Body Shop equivalent in the men's underwear department is a nod to those 'ancient tribes' who 'invented' the jock strap, though goat skin is noticeably rare as a preferred material these days. Gold lamé on the other hand is in, it seems. Variations thereof, especially in clubland, include lace, ribbed effects, and a kind of sheer see-through material which makes the whole package look like a strange deep-sea fish caught in a net of mackerel.
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The history of men's underwear is full of 'revolutions'. The 'Jockey', for example, is the submerged parallel to the story of Levi's, and their development of the Y-front (an invention that is comically described as 'technology') is one such moment when the world stood still in awe at man's mastery over nature, gravity and necessity. This was 1935, America, and presumably the Y-front helped the great country out of its depression. Epic tales are told of massive demand, the new 'briefs' being rushed around the US on a specially chartered plane, and so Jockey began 'Changing the Underwear Habits of a Nation'. In more recent decades Calvin Klein has been the force who has turned the world upside down. Susan Bordo, an excellent and often hilarious critic of masculinity in advertising, quotes from a hagiography of CK which describes his Damascene conversion to selling pants in a new way, a holy insight which descended while he wandered through a nightclub:
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The vision of shirtless young men with hardened torsos, all in blue jeans, top button opened, a whisper of hair from the belly button disappearing into the denim pants, would inspire and inform the next ten years of Calvin Klein's print and television advertisements.
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Bordo says of this: 'Klein's genius was that of a cultural Geiger counter; his own bisexuality enabled him to see that the phallic body, as much as any female figure, is an enduring sex object within Western culture.' And so we see that capitalism at its most refined is a truly visionary, almost spiritual thing.
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Bordo is the best writer on this curious branding, and the increasing acceptability of the young male body to sell breeks. She thinks CK spotted that using athletic young men to sell underwear would reassure heterosexual men that it was ok to even look at the ads, never mind think about trying to be in them. No doubt that reassurance was welcome. There are other effects though. The nagging, wondering, alarming anxiety that the blond boy sprawled around tight white boxers is how a man should look. Or that to look too long might lead to the question which Brodo skips over a few times; how excited is this boy by being in a CK ad, and can I tell by looking at him?
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The beautiful male body, not too muscle-bound, and showing proper sensitivity, almost coyness, is a marvel of course, and a grand vehicle for selling briefs. It isn't perhaps readily transferable to any old product though (not in the time-worn way that the female body is). CK, for example, once tried to sell their socks using the same models, but the outcome was altogether less impressive. A CK-pants-boy appears in a familiar pose, except that he's wearing just one sock, with the word SOCK scrawled over the image (not even SOCKS which would at least have been a pun). Two socks would somehow be so uncool, and would give off an aura of incompetent sexuality akin to the Richard Sherman character in Seven Year Itch.
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If CK's socks prove that the male body will sell little else than the first thing that goes on it to keep it covered, then one of my favourite ads by Jockey shows that Bordo is spot on when she warns against mainstream ads for men's underwear hinting too heavily at gay culture. Jockey's firefighters ad is just too Village People to be straight, and reminds its straight men target audience a little too ironically of the homosociality of looking at men's torsos.
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So if you want to free yourself from the tyranny of the CK-inspired homage to the barely-adult male with no trousers, then there are but two responses; one, to go as camp as possible and call the bluff of this faux heterosexuality (if this is your thing, then try Paul Marchand's clubbing wear). Or, two, go for a plain no-nonsense, GQ kind of approach. 'Brass Monkeys' will be your thing then, with their amusing name and overtly hetero advertising. Whichever way you hang, though, hang loose.
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