Men’s Fashion: Stagnation and Change

In my early days of high school I found myself swept up into the cultural fever of the “scene” aesthetic, it being one of the prominent subcultures of my age group at the time. It was time to do away with my Hollister garb and try something different, something unique. I loathed to shop at Hot Topic so I combed the H&M and Urban Outfitters websites for the perfect wardrobe and came out with something that was a confusing mix of colors and cultural influences. It worked for me at the time though. Next, I had to change my music taste and while I attempted to listen to some obscure alternative bands, my playlist was still littered with Natasha Bedingfield and Kelly Clarkson. My “scene” friends seemed to accept me but understood the fact that I was never really one of them. I was just playing around. For purely academic reasons, I dug through my old Myspace and present to you the little gem on the left. Oh yeah, I was playing around.

Eventually, my style experimentation transformed into something closer to what I wear today, but I learned through my freshman and sophomore years of high school that forced style changes are never a good idea, especially when you’re attempting to be a part of a subculture. Men, in particular, seem to have a harder time deviating from the norm as there has generally been one stagnant uniform with few changes to it through the years. In looking at subcultural styles and historical changes in menswear history, transgression holds a unique cultural value and identity politic in relation to men’s fashion.

Dick Hebdige in Subculture: The Meaning of Style sees subcultures as the “breakdown of consensus in the postwar period…expressed, obliquely, in style.” (17) Through style, participants in subcultures are able to express dissent to cultural hegemony and ideology–that is, ideology as an unspoken social order–rather than actively protesting it. Thus, in deviating from normal codes of dress, style in subculture is seen as an act of transgression. Certain utilitarian pieces become culturally appropriated to bring on new meanings, such as diaper pins into clothing accessories, and clothing in subcultures take on a new significance from clothes that are representative of the normative culture. For instance, the blazer–the lynchpin of every respectable man’s wardrobe–lined with safety pins down the lapel can mean something vastly different than its original intention.

The Sex Pistols and The Rolling Stones, some of the earlier adopters of the new wave of punk, become the subcultural style icons rather than, say, Donny Osmond or Scott Baio. In terms of men’s fashion, this new shift in style upsets the original social order in place since The Great Male Renunciation. The Renunciation represents a time before the mid-18th century when men dressed equally, if not more, flashily and ornate than women as a marker of hierarchy and class differences. With the rise of industry and current capitalistic system, “the male subject retreated from the limelight, handing on his mantle to the female subject,” thus reducing the male flamboyant dress into “the respectable suit” of today. (Silverman, 183-184) Since then, while the suit’s specific function and look may have changed, its usage as the hegemonic style for men has not. Punk subcultures challenges all of that and for men, punk represents a chance to break free from a stagnant system with very little stylistic changes compared to women’s fashion.

Peacock style as seen in Vogue editorial in November 1968.

Peacock style as seen in Vogue editorial in November 1968.

Before punk’s introduction as a “mainstream” subculture, there was another significant transgression of men’s fashion. The “Peacock Revolution” of the late 60’s is profiled in Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest Of Cool” as “an astounding succession of flamboyant men’s garments” that represented the middle class man’s abandonment of “the somber tones and severe stylings of conventional clothing.” (187) The “revolution” was not an organic one as punk subculture was; it was created by the combined efforts of textile leaders, menswear designers, advertisers, and magazine editors and their worries about the “problems of stagnation” to accelerate the industry’s profit. (188) In 1965, GQ magazine even defined the “new” male as one who “chooses his clothes to ‘express himself’ rather than conform to the mandates of his surroundings…dressing more to the limits of their own personality and inventiveness…” (189) The new, hip guy was being fabricated and positioned by these industry leaders to promote consumerism, which in turn created the concept of obsolesce in menswear and ultimately lead to the Peacock’s demise in the 70’s: “As the new styles grew more and more distant from the familiar looks of the 1950’s, many consumers began to complain and cease buying.” (199)

The Peacock Revolution should certainly not be dismissed, however, even if it does not lend as much legitimacy and longevity as different subcultures. It represents a time where men–not only youth–started to really show an interest in fashion and play around with and challenge the concept of hegemonic style. This is significant as women, not men, have historically been the ones to challenge notions of normative style, with corsets and the pant for example. What is unfortunate is that today, the Peacock Revolution is largely ignored by fashion industry professionals. In fact, GQ has redefined the meaning of the Peacock with no historical reference to its origins. The Peacock is now seen as a touch too trendy and overtly garish, a “monumental douchebag.” (Ironically enough, my previous employer, Michael Bastian, is listed as “The Pantheon of the Bird Kings,” or one of the leaders of modern Peacock style.)

What the examples of subculture and Peacock style do is play with the notions of the intelligible body. A term coined by Michael Foucault in Discipline and Punish, the intelligible body can be characterized as “the body as an object of knowledge interpreted through disciplinary discourses.” (McLaren, 108) It can be said then that the characterization of male dress has been so stagnant since the 18 century to produce such an intelligible body; it makes sense, and can be interpreted easily. When men mess with the body as it is known and accepted, there is a moral panic that occurs such as is described by Hebdige when a subculture is discovered and misunderstood. The presence of the subcultural participant, the Peacock (both past and present), and any such man that is transgressing, or not subscribing to cultural norms is, to put it simply, uncomfortable.

Since the explosion of subcultural style and the Peacock revolution, men’s fashion has vastly changed. The intelligible body–an example of which is shown on the left, purposely faceless to represent the universality of such a uniform–has remained the same but the means of going about acquiring style and representing it has changed. It is not uncommon for men today to be aware of their style and concerned with its function and value, a concept introduced by the Peacock. Men have historically been concerned with preserving their notions of masculinity resulting in an unchanging mode of dress–an idea that has been challenged as of late–and it would be interesting to present the most current research to reflect the recent trends in menswear and style.


Works Cited

Foucault, Michael. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books. Print.

Frank, Thomas. “Fashion and Flexibility.” The Conquest Of Cool. Chicago: U Of Chicago P, 1997. 185- 269. Print.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1979. Print.

McLaren, Margaret A. Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Print.

Silverman, Kaja. “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse.” On Fashion. Ed. Shari Benstock and Susanne Ferriss. Rutgers, The State University, 1994. 183-96. Print.


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