Why do ‘sexy clothes’ not exist for men?

Mainstream menswear is often basic and functional, while ‘well-dressed’ men are praised for wearing clean clothes that fit. But, asks Oliver Keens, what if a man wants to dress sexy?

Monday 13 March 2023 15:32 GMT
Sacha Baron Cohen poses in a ‘mankini’ as Borat
Sacha Baron Cohen poses in a ‘mankini’ as Borat (PA)

As with many things in life, I frequently bow down to the Renaissance-esque ingenuity of 1970s underground gay culture. Take the Hanky Code, which peaked in this era. It was a way of signifying hyper-specific sexual proclivities via clothing. To elaborate, a bandana of a certain colour placed in either the left or right back pocket would denote a sexual desire. For example, left lavender meant you liked drag queens. Black right meant you enjoyed BDSM. Left green meant you were looking for a daddy figure. Brown... well, you can look it up.

Sure, it might sound niche, and as intensely specific as ordering a Nando’s meal online, but as a language for clearly communicating sexual desire, it’s pretty faultless. I think about this a lot, because I suspect a lot more men would secretly love a way to signal their desires through sexy clothes. Beyond just a fleece, a Berghaus jacket, or unbuttoning that second shirt button, you racy fox, you.

It’s vital to make clear that when we talk about “sexy clothes”, we’re not translating that as an assumption that a person is automatically feeling sexual. But it’s also true that, in certain scenarios, humans like to wear clothes that make them not just feel sexy, but look sexy. For people who wear women’s clothes, there’s a pretty well established canon that fits this brief. Fashion brand Boohoo has a “Sexy & Seductive” page on its website, ASOS displays women’s clothes (such as dresses) under the word “sexy” but doesn’t signpost men’s clothes in the same way, while seeing an Ann Summers on a high street – for good or bad – sends a fairly strong societal message of what “sexy clothes” are understood to be.

For people who wear men’s clothes, however, things get almost comically abstract. What does a man wear if he wants to convey a feeling of sexuality from within? A nice shirt? Short shorts? A Borat-style mankini? Can you imagine the titters if a man walked into a clothes shop and asked where the “sexy and seductive” section was? In a society firmly in the grip of capitalism and consumerism, a mystifying void exists: nobody quite knows what a man can wear in order to feel and look sexy. Is this a problem, beyond just mere “Ahh, diddums”?

If you could distil the way in which mainstream society informs how the average man should dress, it would be “Don’t rock the boat, son.” Simple. Basics. Timeless. Functional. These are the kind of words associated with most male high-street fashion. Things stay vanilla when you canvass opinions from women attracted to men, who often talk about the idea of sexy male clothes in small wins: clothes that fit well. Clothes that are clean. Clothes that make him feel comfortable and confident.

I’ve always found that last one a bit weird. For example, Jordan Peterson undeniably looks “confident” in his many tailored waistcoats, yet most people I surveyed would rather shag a Colin the Caterpillar for all the sex appeal he exudes. Another often-used word – “effortless” – has a more depressing overtone. Where one gender is still overwhelmingly expected to make an effort, another is constantly given a free pass, even praised for making almost zero effort. It’s a thorny double standard, especially when we’re encouraging more and more men to “do the work” in other aspects of their own life and psyche.

On the flip side, men who “try too hard” are often met with a sea of red flags from society. We’re not talking fops and dandies here, or the unstoppable churn of men who still think displaying wealth via expensive clothes makes them sexy. No, there’s a more sinister, class-based aspect at play. The dominance of stultifyingly middle-class normcore tropes, coupled with the gentrification of streetwear, has had the effect of cornering men into a strangely sexless nook, from which any deviation gets shot at from all sides.

A few examples of how the writer has tried to ‘dress sexily’ in the past (Oliver Keens)

Take the example of the “Four Lads in Jeans” meme from 2019, where a picture of friends on a night out in Birmingham went viral after people started recaptioning the image with hurtful imagined tropes about them being white nationalists and racists. All based solely on their appearance. They were subjected to online abuse for about 18 months – even one of their mums was trolled. But without wishing to get all devil’s advocate here, I would say that they were serving some pretty rock-solid sexiness: muscles, tats, tans, and clothes that – while mighty tight – accentuated their chosen body shapes in a way that probably made them feel, y’know, hot. Is that such a crime?

All men find out the hard way that dressing like an iconically sexy man just doesn’t work. You can go topless in a cowboy hat, but you will never be Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise. You can unbutton your shirt to the navel, but you’re not Lenny Kravitz. I knew a guy who used to dress as Indiana Jones. It was just such a disaster.

It’s not saying much, but the suited character of Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey is at least a rare example of a recent sexy-man stereotype that is at least semi-achievable for the average bloke. Yet ironically, the status of the suit – once a bankable sexy look in a man’s wardrobe – is in freefall. Anyone who’s been to a post-pandemic wedding will know that the tradition of entering wedlock surrounded by despairing men bulging in ill-fitting suits is surely dying out. Nobody’s buying suits anymore, period.

All men find out the hard way that dressing like an iconically sexy man just doesn’t work

It might seem a bit “woe-is-us” to worry about the lack of sexy men’s clothes, but it’s informative to see who else is thinking about this odd grey area. Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, and the aforementioned Jordan Peterson, for example, have all sniffed around this subject before in online content. Going back a few years, the book The Game – which introduced horrendously toxic pick-up techniques such as “negging” – attempted to fill the void with the act of “peacocking”, ie dressing in a dickishly flamboyant way to attract a sexual partner. In short, the enemy manosphere is smart enough to tease and exploit the (perfectly understandable) vulnerabilities men have around their own attractiveness and appearance.

It’s a shame, because I really believe that soothing that anxiety with a go-to wardrobe of socially accepted “sexy guy clothes” would have so many tangential benefits. Sexual fulfilment starts with honesty, yet being honest, open and transparent about sexual desire can take a lifetime of work for some men.

I think clothes that hint at a sexual state of mind would help to encourage more openness across the board. I’d also hope that clothes might give men the option to avoid more toxic or physical ways of displaying their sexual state. And in a much more optimistic – almost romantic – sense, I think there’s a sleeping generation of genuinely awesome men who frankly want to dress super f***ing sexy and be affectionately objectified by a partner, but have no clue how.

Actually, I do have a quite extreme answer here, if you’re interested, fellas. I started noticing this within the growing scene of sex-positive clubs in London. These are fun, safe places where people of many different sexualities both respect consent and come to play with a higher degree of sexual intention than you would expect on most nights out. And from there, a sartorial aesthetic has emerged among a cohort of ravers who identify as male.

Confronted with the challenge of looking sexy for a sexy party, more and more men are wearing traditionally female sexy clothes. Fishnets, lingerie, lace, bikinis. Not in the name of cross-dressing, fetishism or drag – purely because, well, they’re skimpy, sexy, let you dance with your bum out, and, frankly, what the hell. To many, myself included, these are just sexy clothes that are there for any gender to wear and have a good time in. It’s not ideal, but what else is there? After around 100,000 years of humans wearing clothes, this is the strange place me and my ilk have ended up: squeezed into lingerie, a bit chafed, yet genuinely having a lovely time.

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