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(Siraj Sindhu)– I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld re-runs lately. Some may sneer and say I’m stuck in the past, but I’ll happily admit that I have a romantic nostalgia for the mid-’90s. The simplicity of the era when just about any problem could be mitigated by having a bowl of cereal and watching the Mets game has an undeniable appeal. But I’ll also admit that I have one major issue with the ‘90s, and Seinfeld in particular: men in those days, captured eternally by the show, typified the “sack suit” way of dressing. Clad in enormous shoulder pads, baggy sweaters, and light-wash jeans, the men of Seinfeld represented the very depths of fashion.
As a man who takes an avid interest in fashion, I’ve been swept up by the recent #menswear movement, a style category that focuses on the use of formal pieces in the creation of coherently casual fits. Equipped with monkstraps, tie bars, and waistcoats, the men who pursue #menswear as a hobby are nearly the polar opposites of the cohort of Jerry Seinfeld, an inversion that reveals that Seinfeld belies a deeper significance to our dress and how others interpret it. In The Outing, a fourth-season episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and George are mistakenly outed as homosexuals; part of the confusion stems from George and Jerry arguing over the attractiveness of George’s shirt. The implication of this, of course, is that in a world filled with men who are taught by society to disregard fashion, those who care about fashion must be homosexual. The show pokes fun at the obvious irrationality of that conclusion; the viewer, while laughing along and acknowledging that fashionability does not correlate to homosexuality, still knows that as a culture, we often automatically assume that it does.
Witness Reddit’s Male Fashion Advice community, a thriving subreddit with 283,599 subscribers as of this writing, making it one of the largest online fashion forums in existence. MFA is a hotbed for current trends in male fashion, including #menswear, but it is also the grounds for a growing debate about why some men care so much about appearances. The pushback against the styles of the ‘90s results in men with uncommonly deep interest in fashion, as well as other men who view such an interest unfavorably. As a gathering place for men vaguely interested in adopting style as a hobby, MFA runs over with the post-Seinfeld mentality of linking fashion-consciousness with a dearth of masculinity. This is embodied in the frequent posts revolving around the perceived link between sexuality and style. One poster asked: “Honest question, how many of you are gay?”
My personal experience with this sometimes hostile mentality is limited. After graduating from high school, I learned (through the grapevine, naturally) that many of my classmates thought I was gay. I’ll admit that I don’t think its a coincidence that those same classmates also nominated me for the yearbook’s “best dressed” award. Again, the post-’90s attitude of conflating masculinity with style is rampant: Jerry Seinfeld’s shoulder-padded sack suits are manly, while #menswear is much less so.
Then there’s the fact that fashion is, in general, perceived to be the territory of women, and any man who dares to enter the arena is immediately cast in an emasculating light. This is a perception that snowballs and builds upon itself due to the “fashionable gay man” stereotype, thus discouraging men from actively trying to improve their style. Men are thus dissuaded from taking any interest in their appearances, for fear of being seen as effeminate. In fact, men who do ascribe value to looks are perceived as insecure: Jerry Seinfeld could wear a sack suit without fear of judgment, so why cannot modern men? Fashion, rather than being perceived as the hobby that it is, is viewed instead as a crutch used by men who are insecure in their masculinity to hide deficiencies in manliness.
So what? Does it matter if men are being implicitly deterred from dressing as well as women? To me, dress is a critical aspect of self; when one wears an article of clothing, one is, in effect, saying that that piece represents one’s self. Furthermore, clothing is an integral part of our judging and generalizing processes. Without even meeting a person, we often form opinions and develop preconceived notions about him or her based solely on appearance. The men who feel precluded from dressing well out of fear of social misinterpretation are effectively robbed of their opportunity to participate in a social art form. It’s a shame for fashion-conscious men to have to hide their hobby, but that is the status quo.
What can be done to combat this? Well, let me first acknowledge the important phrase made famous in that episode of Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
At each mention of their apparent homosexuality, Jerry and George were quick to point out that homosexuality is perfectly fine; Jerry even adds emphatically, “People’s personal sexual preferences are nobody’s business but their own!” Naturally, the writers of Seinfeld recognize that it would be immoral to depict Jerry and George as afraid of social malignity for being homosexual. Therefore, they vehemently deny being gay, but immediately endorse homosexuality itself, resulting in a bit of a disconnect. This is synecdochic with society in general, which simultaneously victimizes and endorses homosexual and effeminate men. Meanwhile, the irrelevance of George’s shirt becomes obvious: in issues of sexuality and masculinity, fashionability is immaterial. #menswear’s perceived association with effeminateness, then, is fallacious.
Now, we can also quit assuming that gay men dress better than straight men do. Might gay men put more effort into their clothing choices than straight men? Perhaps. But correlating gay men with attention to clothing only serves to propagate the stigma men have towards paying attention to clothing, out of fear of being seen as gay. More helpful, though, would be reducing the malignity of homosexuality (and emasculation), so that men might choose to pay attention to dress over running away from perceptions of homosexuality.
Lastly, we men can work to alter the collective mindset that we have of ourselves as “effortless” in appearance. This self-perception stems from the fallaciously dichotomous assumption that women are made feminine by trying to improve their appearance (by applying makeup, wearing jewelry, dieting, etc.) while men are made more masculine and more secure in their sexuality by not trying (and throwing on whatever is convenient). Furthermore, if caring about appearances became as acceptable a masculine hobby as, say, video gaming or football, the deleterious effects of this false dichotomy could be ameliorated. Perhaps the simplest way to make #menswear an acceptable hobby is to cease associating fashion with sexuality and insecurity in masculinity, and treat it as the art form it is.
Until then, though, I’ll keep up with #menswear on the internets, tell guys that its fine to care about dress, and try to increase the ranks of dudes-who-don’t-judge-other-dudes-on-clothing. And most of all, I’ll be making sure that this never happens again.