The human condition: Doesn't suit you at all, sir...

Fashion increasingly serves to emasculate men, and many women find it deeply unsexy, argues Aminatta Forna
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was once said by someone somewhere that fashion was a joke perpetrated upon women by gay men in an effort to make women look ridiculous. Ever since I heard that said I have always looked with a modicum of discomfort upon the far side of the fashion industry: the toothpick models in topless frocks, the no-eyebrow look, the clownish make-up, the Helmut Newton imagery, the breasts either strapped down or ludicrously uplifted silicone apples. Certainly feminists have exercised themselves at length over the significance of fashions for women. Are women disempowered by baby-doll dresses, turned into sexualised trophies by Thierry Mugler's comic fantasy outfits, exploited and demeaned by the industry as a whole?

As London Fashion Week comes to a close, a whole new angle has emerged within that debate. For the first time London Fashion Week acknowledged men's fashions and designer Ozwald Boateng, whose own show (the first menswear show to be staged as part of the week) called for a men's fashion week some time in the near future. It's been a long time in coming, but it seems that men's fashion has finally stepped down from the catwalk and onto the street.

Turning men into dedicated followers of fashion is probably the last item on the check list of the "feminisation" of the modern urban male. Fashion has for years been a deeply female preserve. Let's pause for a moment while I define my terms. I'm not talking about style, elegance or any of that, which goes beyond gender bias. I'm talking about high fashion, frontline fashion: men in backless jackets, frontless trousers, platform boots and Cat In The Hat toppers. The fashion frontier.

The question is: what does it mean when men become fashionable? If the way in which women's bodies are clothed and presented to the world tells us something about women's status and current perceptions of femininity, what happens when men become the muses? Dylan Jones, style commentator and editor of the Arena group of magazines, views this as a turning point. "The change began to happen 15 years ago, when men began to see images of themselves in magazines. We are reaching critical mass at the moment. I see it as a kind of emancipation, a freedom to experiment in a way women have always been able to do."

But is it really about emancipation or something more sinister? Is male interest in fashion symptomatic of a change in fortunes? It has always been the most disenfranchised men in society - particularly, for example, black men - who have been the most fashion conscious. Black men's bodies have also been objectified in a way that only women's have previously been. Take a look at any book or exhibition of nudes. You'll see women's bodies and, of those that are men, most will inevitably be Mapplethorpe- type images of black men. Fashion is as much about low levels of social status as it is about large amounts of money. It is the frivolous pastime of the trophy wife, the person who doesn't have to go to work, to give or receive orders. Fashion in extremis essentially says: "Don't take me seriously." Notice how few designers, themselves highly successful people, ever wear their own designs. The exception that proves the rule is Vivienne Westwood, who is comprehensively considered a bit of a nutter.

By now, we're all familiar with the statistics regarding female versus male employment patterns. It's official: the future is female. The increasing dominance of women in the workplace is being reflected in the clothes that are produced for men and for women. Sarah Jameson, a stylist and formerly a buyer for London stores says: "Women's clothes are becoming increasingly sober. Look at the work of people like Donna Karan and Nicole Farhi. Men's clothes, on the other hand, are more frivolous, much more dandy."

Becoming creatures of fashion perhaps represents a final humiliation for men. Last week I watched a TV snippet of one of the fashion shows, replete with male models doing their thing. Those of us in the room cringed in unison as a delightful-looking young man, dressed like an idiot, bounded on to the runway and began to move and pout in a masculine effort at coquetry. Even in the industry there's a residual horror of marketing menswear as "fashion". I asked Ozwald Boateng if he would like to be considered fashionable. "Absolutely not!" came the categorical reply. "The word isn't even in my vocabulary." His clothes are still made with the workplace in mind.

The irony about men's fashion is that for years clothing designs have been created to constrain women's physicality, and to accentuate female helplessness and passivity. A woman nobbled by high heels can't run, she can't even take a full-size step in a tight bandage skirt. When it comes to men, fashionable clothes often serve to negate those traits associated with masculinity, such as ruggedness, strength, speed. This is true whether you're talking about the man terrified of soiling his shantung silk jacket, the boy with trousers so low on his hips that they threaten to fall down and trip him up, or the young man zipped tight into his Day-Glo, Latex, Versace waistcoat, overheating and running out of air. Fashion clothes serve to emasculate men, and many women find it deeply unsexy.

Imogen Edward Jones, former sex columnist for a men's style magazine, sums up the contempt women feel for the fashionable man: "It takes away from his hunter-gatherer status. You're being attacked in the street and he's running to help you in his David Bowie stilettoes? I don't think so!" On the other hand, those who welcome the new liberty men have in deciding what to wear accuse women of adhering to double standards. "Fashion isn't really about sex," says TV presenter and cultural critic Rajan Datar. "We know that, because women look at other women right down to their shoes. Men never notice women's shoes. The trouble is, while women are judged by other women, men are judged not by other men but by women, too." He believes women's narrow definitions of masculinity and their conservative attitudes constrain men's sartorial creativity. In other words, girls are sexist.

The fashionable man still poses more questions than he answers. It can reasonably be argued that women have seized and appropriated fashion, transforming an unimportant pursuit into a multi-million pound industry and taking control of images of womanhood along the way. But men's fashion is a long way from that. Perhaps one of the most interesting dimensions is that the debate over what is or isn't suitable attire for a man places women, for once, on the opposite of the gender equation. Would you ever hire a man who came to an interview wearing a skirt? Deep down, I know I probably wouldn't.

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