Jan 18, 2024

Can the Love of Menswear Be Justified in a Time of Global Crisis? ❧ Current Affairs

The various tubes and vessels that everyone slides their body parts into everyday—clothes—are broadly considered to be, at best, the domain of the frivolous and unserious—at worst, the preoccupation of the narcissist. But even a passing reflection on the facts reveals this popular notion to be absurd. Clothes have enabled human beings to colonize virtually all of the Earth. Homo sapiens would have remained an exclusively tropical species had it not figured out how to clad its heat-dissipating skin in the heat-trapping skins and furs of other animals or the fibers of plants. For those of us who live in cold and wet climates, clothes are a survival necessity. Clothes also represent a nontrivial part of most people's annual budget and, more importantly, daily life—whether they admit it or not—given that we are all surrounded by them in the most literal way possible. More consequentially, textile production and distribution are major sources of waste and pollution. Clothes manufacturing contributes to widespread labor abuses all over the world. Anyone who wears clothes is tied up in this web of human exploitation and environmental degradation.

For most of my life, men have, generally speaking, been actively discouraged from taking too close an interest in clothes. At some point in the last few decades, it became a point of faux-masculine pride to show so little interest in what you wore that you were dependent on your mother or wife to buy your clothes and dress you. In a March 2023 example, a group of right-wing pundits—including Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh—cosplaying being masculine on a podcast were publicly roasted for boasting that they don't know how to do laundry and that their wives do all the clothing-related work (it's broadly recognized that those on the political right tend to be the worst dressed).

In defiance of this stereotype, menswear has grown in popularity in the past few years, and (mostly younger) men are beginning to admit that they care about what they wear. In early 2023, menswear writer and meme-generator Derek Guy became hugely popular on Twitter after people began to notice he was appearing on many people's feeds consistently. His posts—fashion memes, informative threads, style commentary—formed some mysterious mix that aroused the algorithm. Over several weeks starting in late 2022, he amassed tens of thousands of new followers, totaling around 267,000 currently.

Guy is almost certainly the biggest of the men's style writers on Twitter, but far more menswear content can be found on Instagram. Statistics on this are not readily available, but I’ve come across a lot of menswear content on the app, and I would guess that it is host to thousands of menswear accounts, some breaking a million followers—bots or actual human minds, I don't know—posting content that ranges from the humble fit pic to the informative style lesson to the TikTok-inspired getting-dressed montage. The biggest ones tend to promote, let's say, less subtle or refined styles. While many of the outfits produced by Instagram fashion accounts are very basic and broadly proliferate poor, or at least boring, advice on how to look good, some of the more respected menswear accounts illustrate and elucidate good taste, like those of Mark Large, Simon Crompton, and of course Derek Guy.

But this growing taste for good taste has only recently broken into more mainstream discourses. For most of the first quarter of the 21st century, I’ve watched mainstream menswear languish in a limbo of bad style: billions of men draped in ill-fitting suits, synthetic athleisure, and business casual. Of course, during this Dark Age of Menswear there were still online forums gathering to discuss the merits of lapel shape and softness of shoulder, still subculture oases demonstrating style. Now, through blogs, podcasts, and social media, such discourses have filtered to the masses. The proliferation of menswear analysis and style iconography indicates that more men are thinking more systematically about the clothes they wear than have been for a long time.

So what? In a time when species are going extinct at doomsday rates last seen among dinosaurs, the moral and material foundations of civilization are crumbling, and authoritarians are entering a hyper-hysterical mode, can there possibly be any value in caring about something as seemingly frivolous as personal style and taste in clothing? Indeed, these very problems demand that egalitarians engage more deliberately in how we dress.

Style is the art of making things beautiful, whether hair, clothes, buildings, or prose. A stylist combines their creative intuition and technical skill to make something more beautiful than it otherwise might be in serving its practical function. Good style is valuable because beauty is intrinsically valuable. As Nathan J. Robinson writes in this magazine, "What is beauty? Beauty is that which gives aesthetic pleasure. … Beautiful things are things that you want to keep looking at because seeing them brings joy." Everything else being equal, it is better that things be beautiful than ugly. Many, probably most, of the world's most beautiful buildings were built or financed on the backs of enslaved or otherwise exploited laborers. They have a hideous past that must be acknowledged. But a beautiful old library whose construction was funded by a Barbadian plantation can still be pleasing to the eye and offer refuge to those alive now. Many modern buildings are also built on foundations of bone, blood, and suffering, but don't even have the benefit of looking beautiful. Yet their ugliness has not helped liberation movements tear down the systems that built them. If anything, their being ugly only adds to their repressiveness and inescapability.

But what about ostensibly more benign things like the fit of the trousers men wear? There are good reasons for men to dress more beautifully, reasons both individual and collective.

The personal benefits of dressing well are straightforward, like pride and dignity, for instance. Wearing good clothes can make one feel many things that those invested in maintaining social and economic hierarchies may not want you to feel: confident, powerful, worthy, beautiful. It is satisfying to assemble a pleasing outfit and walk around in it, and to receive a compliment on it now and then. Wanting to look good can invite accusations of narcissism, but wanting to look good is not necessarily narcissistic. More likely it's vanity, and vanity and narcissism have important differences. Vanity looks at itself objectively, sees its own imperfections, and seeks to improve them for the benefit of others—and of oneself, of course. Narcissism says: I may look like a slob, my body may be ugly, I may not flatter, yet I am still superior. If I offend the eye, that's your problem. As vanity seeks to refine oneself into something better, narcissism swaggers in sweats and clown shoes. Vanity is not (just) about looking good to satisfy a delicate ego; it's about wanting to look good for all the other reasons both selfish and selfless connected with why anyone does anything, for fun, for social obligation, for the hell of it.

In societies that aim to force people to conform to narrow, homogeneous ways of living in the world, dressing with individual style can be one small but important act of transgression. A person may declare that they have a mind and a soul that is their own, and reveal a bit of it in the decoration on their body. Making an art of self-decoration is as old as human beings, and probably older. Homo neanderthalensis, a species possibly twice as old as Homo sapiens, likely wore jewelry. Thousands of human cultures throughout our nearly 400,000-year history have put uncounted hours into designing beautiful body art, whether clothes, jewelry, or tattoos. Dressing is the only survival necessity that we can each make into an art, the only art where everyone partaking is both spectator and artist. Dressing is something everyone does every day; it is only reasonable to seek to do it well, with intention, creativity, and personal style. Though clothing and other decorations can signify all sorts of social elements—membership in a group, hostility to a group, position in a hierarchy—they can also simply represent the deeper inclinations of an individual.

Take, for instance, the inclination to look like a cowboy. During elementary school, I wore cowboy boots to class every day. Once in second grade, on my way to the bathroom during class, my black-and-white faux snakeskin boots clip-clopped brazenly down the silent hallway. As I passed another class, the teacher halted her lesson to intercept me as she closed her door against my thunderous heels. "Those are too loud," she croaked with a scowl. Even at age 8, I was struck by the hypocrisy of this—she was wearing substantial heels herself—and by the absurdity of scolding a child for simply wearing cowboy boots. Without slowing my sonorous stride, I glared back at her and continued on to the bathroom. Though I made powerful enemies, I looked good. This is a silly little example, though it didn't feel silly to me as an 8-year-old. The core of this feeling is not some artifact left behind in childhood; it remains important into adulthood. Clothing can give one a sense of courage to face difficult tasks and a sense of defiance against a powerful authority or hostile collective; and it can help one to rebuild one's sense of dignity and self-esteem in the midst of the traumatic onslaught of indignity that a brutal, uncaring society is constantly throwing at us.

While dressing beautifully is good for oneself, it also benefits the public, in more ways than one. Obviously it's better to add beauty to public spaces than to detract from it, but there are other benefits than just adding beauty for its own sake.

A widespread process of divestment from the very idea of a public has been occurring since about a generation after the Second World War. This phenomenon can best be measured in persistent attempts to privatize public goods like utilities, healthcare, and transportation; to corporatize institutions with public value like nonprofits, universities, and research labs; and to dismantle regulations that aid the public, like environmental, worker safety, and consumer protection laws. But we can also see this phenomenon in the behavior of the public itself: with the rise of personal vehicle transportation, suburban development, consumer culture hedonism, and the competitiveness of neoliberal cultural politics, individual behavior in public has reflected—and perhaps reinforced—antisocial trends. Lack of attention to public self-presentation is one area where this phenomenon is particularly visible. Many people most of the time don't make much effort to look good in public. A nice restaurant will be filled with diners in athleisure (such as leggings and sweatshirts), offices with employees in business casual, or streets with pedestrians in their pajamas. While we won't fix healthcare by dressing nicely in public, behaviors as small as paying attention to public presentation are one way to begin reinvesting in the idea of a public that is worthy of respect.

I recently saw a man with exceptional style seated outside a coffee shop. He managed to combine a big orange beard of a Highland warrior with a long blue and yellow coat of a wizard. I complimented him on his style, and he thanked me, and rather theatrically added with a pose that he's "just adding color to a drab universe." This changed the experience of a busy street where there is a general feeling of hostility and impatience, and where talking with strangers isn't the norm. Simply because of his individual and beautiful style, I felt warmly toward him, and felt comfortable saying a nice thing to him (this kind of interaction is more common among women; taking an interest in style can make it more common for men, too). This is a small thing, but these sorts of small things can add up. They can increase positive feelings toward the public, by the public, from which all sorts of common good policy and goodwill can flow. At a time of rapid breakdown of social trust and a pandemic of cowardice and contempt, a little style can go a long way.

Having spent some time in leftist online discourse, I have seen plenty of self-identified populists wary of efforts to focus on beauty or tasteful style, who might even suggest that judging taste, style, and good clothes is elitist. Words like "elitist" and "elite" have been frequently misused by people who seek to deflect attention from economic hierarchies and instead focus on cultural signifiers, so as to prevent the class solidarity necessary to erode those economic hierarchies. Instead of its traditional meaning of someone who exerts disproportionate power—either from hereditary status, large amounts of relative wealth, or some official position in government or industry—"elite" in these cases is applied to vague status indicators, like clothes, or to someone with some higher education, a large following on social media, or simply residence in an urban location (people who often have little or no attachment to real power or wealth). Consider, for instance, the pundits who use "elites" to describe people with PhDs and annual incomes of $20,000 while celebrating a millionaire business owner—who has their elected representative on speed dial—as if they were a humble blue-collar worker.

In the U.K., "posh" serves a similar purpose. Some use "posh" to mean rich while others mean something like "fancy." In this latter usage, being fancy has nothing to do with how much money you have. Instead, it refers to cultural signifiers like whether you get food from Waitrose—a food purveyor that markets itself as upscale but doesn't generally cost more than other supermarkets—what style clothing you wear, your education level, and the sorts of entertainment you enjoy or places you go for vacation. "Posh" is one of those magic words that separates wealth from class. As such, the word serves a neat rhetorical sleight of hand that benefits real elites—those who run the world's institutions, who control production, extract rents, hoard wealth. Real elites clad themselves in ugliness, whether puffer jackets, ill-fitting polos and chinos, or the garish mansions they look out from but never have to look at. A glance at the wardrobes of some of the world's wealthiest men (Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, George Lucas, Bill Gates) and most visible power brokers and media personalities (Matt Gaetz, Boris Johnson, Jordan Peterson) reveals the wealthy to be every bit as lacking in taste as most men of their generations, or maybe more so. (Some of Derek Guy's most valuable content is his relentless spotlighting of horribly dressed powerful people.) Badly dressed elites are a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps the wealthy and powerful feel so secure in their positions today that they no longer feel any need to project dignity and self-respect.

It made sense for populists of the past to be wary of putting too much emphasis on elucidating style and taste according to indicators that could be tied to wealth, like garment quality or rare jewelry, or the subtle differences in quality and detail in clothes that can mark out those privileged with an education in such manners and those without. Indeed, there is a history of using class signifiers like luxury clothes to reinforce rigid social and economic hierarchies. Clothing renders abstract interior qualities—rebelliousness or authority, playfulness or rigidity—immediately visible to the social world and has been used to demarcate social hierarchies for millennia. Clothes can project power and dignity, or the opposite. Roman Senators and Emperors wrapped themselves in heavy, opulent fabrics and rare, expensive colors, prohibiting poorer Romans and slaves from donning such attire. European nobility and royalty heaped gilt garments and jewelry on themselves throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Wealthy industrialists invented intricate new categories of formalwear to distinguish themselves from lower classes, or co-opted working-class designs. The European dictatorships of the 20th century leaned heavily on clothing to build and maintain their hierarchies. The Nazis perfected the art. Some of the biggest names in fashion design collaborated with the Nazis to develop their imposing-looking uniforms or to dress the wives and mistresses of prominent Nazis. Some of these big names are still at the apex of fashion, like Coco Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Hugo Boss. Today, fascist groups still use clothing to achieve uniformity and identifiability (if not dignity), like the Proud Boys’ yellow-and-black polos or the Patriot Front's tan slacks, blue shirts, and white masks.

But just because enemies of egalitarianism have used style as a weapon doesn't mean workers or marginalized groups should embrace the austere and ugly, the poor cloth so many have been doomed to wear as slaves or peasants. It's not elitist to suggest that leftists, workers, "the People," or anyone else who is part of the constituency fighting for equality, liberty, and justice take an active interest in their clothes, for both tactical and aesthetic reasons.

Discourse among those who oppose authoritarians typically dismisses clothing as a frivolous distraction from real issues, or even representative of the consumer capitalism they seek to overthrow. This is a rather new, and unfortunate, development, since organized working-classes and rebel subcultures of the past used clothing to effectively create unity, or express nonconformity, and build status, dignity, and respect. The Black Panthers in the 1960s adopted militaria to achieve an imposing, dignified uniformity. Black Civil Rights activists also adopted Africana and natural hairstyles to proclaim Black pride and to reject European standards of beauty. Others donned formalwear to project and co-opt conventional indicators of respectability and professionalism. Anarchists have adopted practical dark-colored, rugged clothing to achieve tactical uniformity and anonymity. Union members don workwear with their union logo or the outfits of their trade to show pride in their work and solidarity with fellow workers. Groups fighting for egalitarian change—whether union workers, ethnic groups, or political radicals—should not underestimate the value of looking cool in attracting new members.

Often when we think of working-class dress, we’re shown ugly, undignified track suits of chavs, slouchy sweatshop-made sacks, fast fashion hauls, or some other often patronizing stereotype. Peaky Blinders, a British TV series, was a rare recent piece of culture to depict working-class men in a dignified manner. Just about every episode had a whole scene of the leads dressed in immaculate dark tailored suits and overcoats, swaggering in slow motion down a dank Birmingham lane. But this, of course, was depicting a relic of the past. While a lot of young Brits have adopted the harsh undercut of the Shelbys, they have unfortunately bypassed the imposing lines and flattering billow of the wool coats, and do in fact opt for shapeless sweats and Michelin Man puffers. Before we brush this off as a money issue—the working class and the downwardly mobile middle class who might form a strong egalitarian bloc simply don't have a ton of money to spend on tailored suits and overcoats—it's worth considering the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People, or Les Sapeurs.

This is a subculture in the Congo made up of extremely low-income men who nevertheless don impeccable drip. "In the midst of their war-torn slums," Stevanie Honadi writes, "these men dress in tailored suits, elegantly smoke on their pipes and stroll the impoverished streets in immaculate shoes." The practice of wearing European dandy clothing began, in Honadi's history, in a servile manner to European colonists, but soon took an anti-colonial turn. The Congolese sought to use their mastery of this particular style as an argument for independence, a jeer at the European pretense to civilization and sneer of African "savagery." In post-colonial Congo, the sapeur movement remained anti-authoritarian, but, instead of opposing a colonial European government, they resisted the corruption and overreach of the new Congolese state. More recently, as harsh global economic development has left Congo riven with conflict and desperate poverty, the sapeur subculture continues to don elaborate clothing while posing in juxtaposition with trash heaps and the detritus of war.

They’re not the only marginalized people who have taken fashion into their own hands. What garment was so dangerous it was nearly banned in Los Angeles? Yes, that's right: zoot suits. "Zoot suits"—probably named as a duplication of "suit"—first evolved in the 1930s Harlem jazz scene and soon popped up in Black communities in Chicago and Detroit. They continued to evolve among both Black and white jazz and blues fans—called hipsters or hepcats in the 1940s—and spread to the West Coast and Mexican American community there. Zoot suits were ostentatiously big, with high waists, loose trouser legs, shoulder pads, and long jackets, giving the wearer greater size and allowing them to project themselves confidently into spaces they would otherwise be discouraged from inhabiting.

Anyone who was alive in the 1990s will remember the ska-swing song "Zoot Suit Riot" by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. The song title refers to actual riots that occurred in Los Angeles in June 1943. The "riots" involved street fights between the Latino and Black men wearing the voluminous suits and white sailors on leave. For a variety of reasons, including war time stress, racial resentment, a controversial murder trial, and young men under the influence of alcohol, skirmishes broke out over a few days. White Angelenos and sailors stripped the young men wearing the suits, potentially inspiring similar attacks against Latinos in other cities throughout the country. (Though it was a short episode, it left enough of a cultural imprint to inspire a film and a ’90s ska song, and zoot suits even made their way to a joke in the U.K. television series Peep Show.) The War Production Board tried to ban zoot suits, citing the need to ration material for the war. Zoot suit manufacturers flouted the law, which was largely toothless, and continued cladding predominantly Black and Latino men in the suits as an act of disobedience to a state that frequently overreached throughout the war. Perhaps the most famous zoot suiter was Malcolm X, who would go on to don more conservative dress as he increasingly gained access to powerful people and widespread media attention. Like many others in the Civil Rights movement, he saw value in co-opting conservative dress so as to inject radical ideas into spaces that those ideas might otherwise never reach.

What these examples suggest is that clothing can be a source of defiance against inequalities—economic, ethnic—and serve as a psychological equalizer. If you can look better, feel better, and hold your head higher than richer members of society, you may still be disenfranchised in other ways, but in one important way of maintaining a sense of self-worth and agency, you’ve gone a long way to reclaiming some freedom and independence. If standards of taste have tended to emerge from the core of empires or elite circles, that's all the more reason to creatively subvert them to make something more beautiful, or to seize good taste from historically privileged populations. Now is a good time for marginalized groups and working classes to co-opt style for all the reasons they have in the past: dignity, solidarity, identity, and pride, or tactics of anonymity, subversion, sabotage, and misdirection.

Though it may be valuable for egalitarians to dress nicely and good for the public to be more beautiful, there are serious problems with clothing manufacturing. Today, the textile industry is rife with abuse, of both workers and the environment. The industry contributes 10 percent of annual carbon emissions, dumps half a million tons of plastic microfibers equal to 50 billion plastic bottles into the ocean, and accounts for 20 percent of industrial wastewater pollution. Fashion industry exploitation of labor is extreme, with the industry engaging in forced labor, underpayment, unsafe conditions, and union busting. There are up to 60 million people working in the garment industry. Ten years ago, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500 more. It was the largest known garment factory accident in history. It was caused by corruption in the building process, corruption in regulation, exploitation of non-unionized workers, and negligence of the fast fashion brand manufacturers that used the factory. While some improvements have been made in Bangladesh's garment industry, with unions central to that process, many problems still remain, there and elsewhere throughout the industry's global production chains.

This sort of exploitation isn't new. Textile demand and manufacturing was a major driver of the Atlantic Slave Trade, with African laborers kidnapped and forced to work in cotton production in the South to feed textile factories in the North, factories where some of the first modern labor strikes in the U.S. occurred as a result of abuse of predominantly women textile workers. (The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was one of the largest labor unions of the 20th century.) Some of the world's first empires were built on textile industries. Archaeologist David Wengrow (of Dawn of Everything fame) chronicled in his book What Makes Civilization? the rise of Mesopotamian empires, the first known empires in history. Textile manufacturing, he argues, was among the first instances of regimented industry we might recognize as factory labor, and was central to the development of profit-generating markets in Ancient Mesopotamia. Demand for luxury goods like lapis lazuli and fine clothes likely drove some of the first expansionist economies, and, in turn, these markets likely coincided with some of the earliest mass, organized ecological destruction. Not much has changed, except that this destruction and exploitation is occurring at a global scale, and the consequences—climate change, microplastic pollution—could endure for tens of thousands of years.

How do we square the need to consume clothes—to stay warm and safe and simply enjoy looking good—with the depredations of the industry that delivers these clothes?

Obviously when problems occur at an industrial scale—like food production systems, transportation systems, or development—the best solutions are designed and implemented at the same scale. The way to solve the garment industry's problems is with regulatory action, such as bans on highly polluting synthetic fibers and chrome tanning of leather, enforcement of labor laws (with significant penalties on the companies that violate them), and attacking agricultural sources of pollution, like cotton fields and animal feedlots, by incentivizing smaller and safer operations. These sorts of changes only come with organized workers, coordinated citizen campaigns, active litigators, and courageous politicians. There are many organizations working on these issues, like Labour Behind the Label, WRAP, Textiles Action Network, Fashion Revolution, Clean Clothes Campaign, The Circle, and more. Garment workers across the Global South are fighting for better wages and human rights. What can those of us who are more on the consumption than the production side do? As we have seen with some of the world's most famous boycotts and campaigns, like those that have scrutinized the supply chains of companies like Nike and Zara and indeed achieved some corporate policy changes, consumer behavior does have an impact, even if it's insufficient alone.

One important way to both filter out many bad-looking clothes and obtain clothes that have less of a negative impact on the environment is to avoid petroleum-based synthetics. Petroleum synthetics are almost never necessary or superior except for some rare technical scenarios, like mountain climbing. Synthetics typically only serve to cheapen production costs—and therefore quality—of clothing for manufacturers and, as a result, often look bad. Worse, every time they’re run through washing machines, they shed microplastics that are proliferating across the globe. Microplastics can currently be found in human blood and breastmilk and even in people living in remote places on the planet. It sometimes takes a little extra vigilance when shopping to avoid them, but it's much easier to find quality garments by simply filtering out petro-based synthetics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic.

Cotton, linen, wool, silk, and leather feel much better to wear—they breathe better and drape better—on top of generally being more ecologically non-harmful, or easier to make so. This is an important distinction. Leather, for example, is very harmful. It is a product of often biodiversity-destroying animal agriculture, and its treatment with harsh chemicals can be dangerous to workers and the environment. When you take its whole life cycle into account, it is environmentally very harmful and carbon emitting. But these problems have simple—if difficult to implement—solutions, and the life cycle of leather can be made much more environmentally and worker sensitive, by treating it in less harmful ways (like vegetable tanning), using better land management practices for the animals, and disposing of it in less polluting ways. Petroleum-based fibers, by contrast, can't be made environmentally safe. At least as they exist now, they will always shed microplastics in vast quantities and depend on carbon-emitting petroleum. These microplastics will bioaccumulate in humans and other animals to their detriment, as neither organisms nor technology have any known means of eliminating them, and the petroleum industry that benefits from them will continue to contribute to climate change.

Clothes are important. They always have been and always will be, as long as there are human beings and the universe remains harsh enough that we need to cover our skin, or our minds remain sophisticated enough to retain the urge to communicate something by how we look. Their manufacture impacts millions of lives, human and otherwise, positively and horrifically. They can be art, they can be adhesives for solidarity movements, they can be wedges forced between people, wielded as a weapon by or against egalitarians, or by or against authoritarians. At the very least, they are one simple everyday way people can make an increasingly ugly world a bit more beautiful.