It is, astonishingly, 10 years ago that, in the pages of this very newspaper, something called "the metrosexual" first swished into public consciousness, one eye checking his reflection in the nearest mirror. The writer Mark Simpson, once described by Vogue as "the gay anti-Christ", was identifying a new social grouping, which would be as relevant for the 1990s, as Sloane Rangers and Yuppies had been for the previous decade.
The metrosexual was a young man with money and a powerful concern for the way he looked. He lived within reach of a city - because, as Simpson wrote later, "that's where the best shops, gyms and hairdressers are". He was not necessarily straight or gay, since the principal object of his love was himself. He tended to work in the fashion industry, the media, pop or was simply waiting tables in a restaurant. It was time, according to that prophetic Independent piece of 1994, for this self-adoring creature to step out of the closet and take his place at the centre of fin de siècle society.
Although many young men did just that, it was eight years before the term caught the eye of advertising creatives and fashion-surfers. Thousands, perhaps millions, of young men had come to terms with their inner yearning for scruffing lotion and Lycra-rich underwear, Mark Simpson revealed in the internet magazine Salon.com. He named and praised public metrosexuals - Brad Pitt, David Beckham, Spiderman - and announced "a seismic shift in social mores".
Metrosexuality, it seemed, was an exciting 21st-century version of masculinity, newer than the New Man, and considerably more alluring than that dreary creature. It could be argued, I suppose, that it was a sort of liberation for a young man to be able to preen, primp, shop and generally fanny about as shamelessly as any woman. There have always been boys in their teens and twenties who have spent longer in front of the mirror than was necessary or healthy, and the traditional remedies for the problem - laughter, mockery, beating them up - were beginning to seem a touch old-fashioned.
But now, on the 10th anniversary of the metrosexual, it is time for us all to grow up and admit that this tag has become an advertiser's ploy. A lazy cultural shortcut, it has been taken to imply - inaccurately, as it happens - a tolerant, fully evolved type of masculinity. Populist politicians, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger, positively welcome the tag. Camp makeover programmes, like the American show A Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, have become international hits. To present any kind of lifestyle programme on British TV, it has seemed almost obligatory to talk, dress and move in a gay, or faux-gay, manner.
Yet the effect on people in the real, unmediated world has been negative. Just as The Sloane Ranger Handbook once dignified social snobbery and yuppiedom later justified the insular acquisitiveness associated with the Thatcher years, so metrosexuality has made socially acceptable some of the more unwelcome character traits of our times - vanity, self-obsession, stupidity and a pointless, masturbatory, inward-looking obsession with sex.
Of course, the last decade or so has been a difficult time in which to be young and male. At school, a noisy army of confident, empowered girls have raced to the fore, leaving boys feeling frazzled and confused. The response of many, as they became men, was to mooch about, tearfully in touch with their own sensitivity, but soon they found themselves accused, with some justification, of being wimps.
A solution to this great gender crisis has been offered by the vogue for metrosexuality: become more like women; discover a new confidence by spending hours improving your pectorals down at the gym or discovering just the right kind of moisturising lotion for your type of skin.
It is a con. Women are different from men. They can primp and worry about the way they look without, except in a few cases, serious damage to the brain or sense of humour. They have had centuries of practice, and are famously good at multi-tasking. Men, on the other hand, become gormless and unattractive as soon as they become over-concerned about their looks, the right colours to wear, how smooth their skin is, whether to wear their hair long or short.
Real grown-up men and, more significantly, real grown-up women know these truths to be self-evident, but the myth is still peddled in the press. "Soigné metrosexuals with good teeth and hair are replacing unhygienic he-men," a particularly silly feature recently announced.
They are not, and we need to remind our young men of the fact. The metrosexual has had his decade. The new role-model is a guy who can think, who would never dream of wasting time on self-indulgent gels or lotions, who smells bracingly of himself, who is proud to leave his clothes lying around on the bedroom floor.Reuse content