From 19th-century bustles to 1920s flat-chested flappers and the voluptuous curves of Christian Dior’s New Look, we’re accustomed to fashion’s changing ideals of female body shape. It’s not just clothes that fall in and out of favour, but busts, hips and waists – the human body reshaped to the demands of fashion.
It’s easy to assume men are beyond such vagaries. Menswear, we often murmur, is about style over fashion, the major debate revolving around double- versus single-breasted suits. No more.
Witness the spring/summer 2014 catwalk collections – or any show in the past half-decade. Look at the slim-hipped models at a Prada show and compare them with the barrel-chested blokes at Givenchy; the quarterback-shouldered Calvin Klein crew, or the sometimes painfully skinny models street-cast for Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent.
The bodies inside the garments are as varied as the designers’ aesthetics and play as important a role as the clothes do. Slimane’s aesthetic isn’t new: skinny teenage models have been employed by the designers Raf Simons and Rick Owens for years. But are they really aspirational? “I think that men generally want to see two body shapes – they want to see what the clothes look like ideally on a man… and they want to see what they would look like on a body they might actually have themselves,” says Dylan Jones, editor of GQ.
“What irritates me is seeing clothes worn by some kid with a 27in waist who can’t afford to buy the clothes. This benefits nobody but narcissistic fashion editors intent on presenting a completely unrealistic view of fashion.”
Ouch. Nevertheless, the aesthetics promoted by Simons and Slimane have proved potent. Simons began showing his clothes in 1995, Slimane in 1997. Both championed a slender male physique from the start, an alternative to the buffed bodies of traditional male fashion advertisements, epitomised by Calvin Klein’s underwear billboards.
In pictures: Snake-hipped to beefcake
“Hedi Slimane was doing the same thing with Dior Homme 10 years ago,” says Toby Wiseman, editor of Men’s Health, when asked if he’s concerned about the prevalence of hyper-attenuated bodies on the Saint Laurent catwalk. “It’s obviously his thing. I’d like to see Pete Doherty squeeze into those suits now! But no, skinny male models don’t scare me. Obesity scares me.”
Wiseman’s opinion is interesting, as Men’s Health is focused on the men inside the clothing rather than the clothing itself. He feels that fashion’s shifts have little influence over the physiques most men aspire to.
“It’s about how clothes feel on your own body more than how clothes look on a model… If there’s a move towards especially slender bodies on certain catwalks this season, it says far more about that designer than it does about men in general.”
Despite the controversy they have generated, skinny male bodies proposed by some designers remain a niche, existing alongside buffed, built torsos.Jess Hallett is a casting director who works with brands including Alexander McQueen, Topman, H&M and Marc by Marc Jacobs. “I think that everyone’s got their particular aesthetic – if you look at a Saint Laurent casting, it’s very different to a Givenchy casting, or a Calvin Klein casting,” she says. “Hedi Slimane obviously wants his shows to look different to everyone else’s. It’s very personal to him.”
And while Slimane’s Saint Laurent catwalk may seem to exclude certain body types, the reality tells another story. “The casting of models for runway shows and ad campaigns is a carefully made call, designed to reflect a designer’s vision and a label’s identity,” says Stacey Smith, menswear fashion buyer of Matchesfashion.com. “From the slight Saint Laurent rock’n’roll boys to the tougher, sportier frame favoured by Givenchy, it’s all part of a bigger message about the visual language of the brand. “Having said that, one of the reasons why Saint Laurent has proved so successful at retail is its versatility – we have clients who will come to us for the full runway looks, just as they were presented on the runway, but many customers are equally drawn to the permanent collection for its tailoring, which has a highly flattering cut. We buy the collection from an XS through to an XL.”
The same is true of labels such as Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci, Calvin Klein Collection or Versace, which promote a toned, muscular physique, but still sell clothes in skinny sizes their models couldn’t squeeze into.
What’s the motivation, then? Plain and simple: branding. When Donatella Versace talks about the silhouette of her menswear, she refers to it as a “V” – tapering from wide shoulders to narrow hips and waist. It’s a classical ideal, but, coincidentally, one that bears the initial of the Versace house.
And, of course, the Versace hunk-in-trunks has become as recognisable a symbol of the house as the Medusa head. The bodies of male models – more varied than those of women – have become branding tools to extol the virtues of a house.
That’s certainly the case for Calvin Klein Collection, where the men’s creative director, Italo Zucchelli, seeks models that express the American athleticism that has become the label’s trademark. “Casting is a very important part of my process, because I have in mind a very specific body type and attitude for the guys that I cast”, he says. Each Calvin Klein Collection show aims to feature at least 10 exclusive models. “Having exclusive models gives you the luxury of having them for the whole show process, so you can cut or dye their hair and make them look really unique. It’s also good for the buyers and press to come to a Calvin Klein Collection show and see faces they’ve never seen before... it makes it very personal.”
Maybe the divergence between male body ideals currently presented on catwalks is indicative of the diversity of male ideals – Saint Laurent taps into blokes with the unrequited desire to be a snake-hipped rock lothario, while Calvin Klein transforms men into athletes, such as the basketball and football players that flank the front rows of its catwalk shows. Fashion is about selling a dream – and for men, that includes lifestyles and bodies, as well as clothes. “Bigger, more muscular men tend to sell more copies of my magazine than more slender men do,” Wiseman says. “But then, over the past decade I have noticed that my own personal desire to become slimmer has increased. These are the vagaries. We all want to look and feel good. That is the constant.”