Conventional, traditional, normal: These words stand diametrically opposed to my understanding of queer identity. But after last season's menswear shows I noticed a spate of criticisms lodged against the work that young designers were showing on the runway, specifically for flouting conventions. Clothing performs an important sociocultural function for queer people (it's a means to more fulfilling self-expression and a way to declare your sexuality and feel ownership over it, and it's even been a form of discreet coding to let other "deviants" know you're of a kind), so this outcry stumped me. How do we move fashion forward if we're going to fault our most avant-garde creative minds for their ingenuity? Was I witnessing a serious and informed debate about the future of men's style, or was this little more than communal venting? Who was pissed off, and why?
"I hate it when men act and dress like women," remarked one commenter in a thread on Hypebeast, a popular men's site geared toward a straight, style-savvy audience. "'Men's Fashion Week' yet there's 4 slides with purses," said another. Two commenters called the subjects "clowns," and one praised model David Gandy, seen in a street style slideshow, for being the only man to give "classic menswear."
It wasn't as bad as it could've been. Someone had the good sense to chime in, "Fuck man, it's 2013...get over it," and another said, "How do you usually like your men to act?" Regardless of the dire state of blog commenting (Popular Science even went so far as to remove the option to comment on their blog posts recently), the opinions voiced by these readers seem to be representative of a good chunk of the online men's fashion community, much to the detriment of productive discussions about modern conceptions (and misconceptions) of gender. And this discomfort with the blurring of gender lines doesn't appear to be the exclusive domain of a heterosexual audience, not that that would make it any more acceptable.
The divide that this dialogue creates -- "classic" vs. "clown" -- immediately brought to mind a great piece from the fashion blogger Susie Bubble, in which she decries this kind of outcry as "joyless" and "patronising." She had to suffer it during the men's collections in London, which showcase the work of some of men's fashion's most conceptual and boundary-burning auteurs, and she wasn't too happy about it:
Is it physically/spiritually getting in the way of your day that these designers are creating these collections? Can you be 100% sure that there is no man in the entire world that would wear this? Is it not much better that someone is out there creating such clothes so that elusive 'man' does have the option to wear halter-neck tops/lace onesies/floral tracksuit bottoms should he choose to do so?
To quote one of our good men in the Hypebeast thread, "Fuck, man...it's 2013. Get over it." Susie's use of the word "patronising" hits the nail on the head for me, as it taps into the idea that these feelings of revulsion being voiced by the "classic" crowd are coming from a place that's all too eager to demean and lessen a designer's artistic output for its "silliness." These men dare not condescend to that kind of "feminine" frivolousness. Their angst is rooted in misogyny: The "clown" camp is an affront to the comfort that they take in traditional masculinity and conventional gender roles. Of course, this is just a theory.
The Independent's Alex Fury lamented seeing the above-mentioned Mr. Gandy, a "classic" dude himself, denigrate the apparent frippery of British designers on national TV. (Of note: Gandy is on the council for London's men's shows.) "I can't help but bemoan the fact that a suited, booted and hatted gentleman is still our stereotypical image of menswear," said Fury. "How reactionary. How antiquated. How downright dull."
In my opinion, fashion should be fun, and you shouldn't be taking it too seriously. Your closet is a breeding ground for creativity, not conformity. Who wants to open up an armoire and think to himself, "How can I look like everyone else today?" or, "Which outfit will my peers approve of?" Is this middle school? Who are you trying to please? A blog post from the writer Charlie Porter speaks to this point very eloquently:
The young menswear designers who have shown at MAN and LC:M since 2005 are restoring a broken link to the radical fashion halted in the 1980s...with their designs, they are allowing for all that is diverse, different, complex and often unsaid. Sometimes the work is uncomfortable or challenging. Often it is celebratory. But it creates a dialogue, and promotes further freedom and creativity. It's these things which show the importance of fashion as a bellwether, not of superficial trends, but of actual societal change.
There will be gay men of the right wing reading this thinking, oh shut up. What they crave is masculine normality through tailoring and what is deemed as conventional clothing. Probably because aping normality was the only way for them to gain acceptance and approval from their family, and from their peers, as they grew up in the 80s or 90s.
This brings us to the problem of queer identity in fashion, menswear in particular. The trappings of masculinity seem to have created a new cult of getting off on fitting in. Why do gay men, accustomed to internalizing self-loathing from a very early age (thanks, society!), seek out "straight-acting" men? Is there a fetishization of "normal" going on here? Feelings of repression and self-hatred (seeing yourself as inferior and/or emasculated by society) bubble to the surface as a hunt for "masc" fuck buddies.
Yet the idea of normal, normalcy, etc., is itself anti-queer, or at least un-queer. Gay men are part of a subculture -- by birth, by choice, whatever -- that deviates from the norm in a fairly fundamental way. To act like "normal" is some sort of newly attainable goal that everyone wants to hop on board with ("We can get married! We're just like you!") is the complete opposite of progress, something that HuffPost Gay Voices editor Noah Michelson discusses in this video. He describes his feeling that "normal" is a "privilege" fought for by "faggots, dykes and gender-nonconforming people." He explains, "'I just happen to be gay': That's not something you could say 20 years ago."
And let's not forget that, because "normal" really isn't the point, people. Take, for example, the fight for marriage. It isn't about us conforming to their standard; it's about gay men and women being equal citizens who are constitutionally granted equal rights. And equal does not mean the same. It simply means that our differences do not make us second-class citizens. It means that you should be able to grow up having a healthy sexual understanding of yourself. You should be able to grow up loving yourself, and loving what makes you different, not hating it. It means that you should be able to have healthy sexual encounters that aren't degrading or covert and that don't make you feel like you're hiding something terrible. It doesn't mean you should feel lucky to be able to look forward to one day fitting in or "passing." "I'm just like you!" is not a victory cry.
Long story short: I'd just like to see people stop being misogynistic assholes. Femininity, however you understand it, is not a diminishing characteristic in a person, man or woman. The sooner we come to terms with that, the better off -- and the better-dressed -- we'll all be.
A version of this post originally appeared on Sean Santiago's blog.