Menswear is functional; womenswear is fanciful. At least, that’s the argument put forward by Robert Leach, author of The Fashion Resource Book: Men, in a recent article for The Independent. Leach proposes that, while women’s fashion has long embraced more abstract sources of inspiration, men’s couture is limited to a handful of perennial themes—such as formal tailoring or military uniform—that roll around season after season in a perpetual cycle of recycling and reinvention.
The reason for this, the British writer claims, is that men’s fashion is rooted in the functional, and relies on a core of familiar items catering for a market in which the timeless is favoured over being ‘of-the-time’. The three-piece suit, for example, has been in existence in some shape or form for over 300 years, and shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. Elsewhere, such staples as the bomber jacket or trenchcoat enjoy near perpetual popularity, while the pool of designers prepared to venture away from the archetype of traditional silhouettes is notably shallow.
Could it be that this division between the sexes is the result of social stereotypes inherently linked to fashion itself? The notion of the sharply-dressed ‘gentleman’, for example, rings as true today as it did centuries ago, while the growing emancipation of women has allowed them to adopt a far wider range of personalities and outward personas to those afforded their ancestors a century ago. Granted, certain cultural phenomena have been drawn into men’s popular fashion over the years—such as the punk, mod, or grunge movements—yet none of them have sufficiently shifted the paradigm to produce entirely new items of their own. Rather, they have sought to appropriate existing staples and use them in new ways as a means of expression.
While street style might seem several degrees removed from the world of catwalk couture—and even further from top hats and tailoring—the trickle-down influence of such institutions is undeniable. One need look no further than the recent news of Supreme’s collaboration with Brooks Brothers on a formal seersucker suit to see one example of how highly men’s fashion of all levels still regards the authenticity of tradition. Perhaps it’s time men took their heads out of the history books and indulged in a bit of fantasy, just as womenswear designers have done for years?
As antiquated as that bi-polar division may be, there may be some truth in it after all…