Consider the red-backed fairy wren. The males, one of nature’s dandies, have coal-black plumage, scarlet capes and wings with yellow trim. The females are gray-brown with just a bit of speckling. If a female flew by, you’d think: “wren.” If a male flew by, you’d think: “wow.”
Now consider New York Fashion Week, which I, an art critic by trade, spent two weeks doing, with spring-summer 2012 men’s wear as my assigned beat. As is often true in journalism, I was learning on the job. But as I puzzled over which male models were super, and why, and caught up on celebrities I’d never heard of, one thing seemed clear: When it came to men’s fashion, the fairy-wren paradigm didn’t hold.
Women got most of the scarlet and yellow, the capes, the trims, the pizzazz, as I could see by following the shows online. The general visual impression I took away from the men’s shows was of gray, beige and brown, a lot of that brown being tanned skin. Even when a designer tried to jazz things up — Tommy Hilfiger went sort of nuts with nautical stripes at his show, held at the High Line on the first Friday of Fashion Week — the men still looked dressed-down-drab.
Has this traditionally been so? Or was this just the unschooled take of a fashion rookie? I turned for answers to the one place I knew to turn, art history. I pulled out my old H.W. Janson survey book. And as I started to flip through, I realized that maybe I wasn’t such a newcomer after all.
For years, I’d been looking at fashion in art. I just hadn’t called it that. I’d called it costuming, period detail, symbols — passing over the fact that the dresses and doublets I was seeing in Medieval manuscripts and on Renaissance sculptures were probably accurate depictions of real clothes that once covered real bodies and reflected the whims of real fashion taste.
Close to the beginning of Janson, I saw something startlingly familiar: the Parke & Ronen men’s swimwear show I’d attended a few nights earlier, but set in ancient Greece. What I was looking at were marble sculptures of kouri, or youths, from around 600 BC. They were all nude and all shared the same pose: standing upright, arms down, staring blankly ahead, with one foot slightly advanced, as if in forward stride.
The pose, as I now knew, was standard on runways. So was the body type. And the blank beauty. The Parke & Ronen men looked like generic career-hunks. The kouri did, too; so generic, in fact, that they seemed barely human.
They weren’t human. They were semi-divine.
Janson describes kouri as “neither gods nor mortals but as something in between, an ideal of physical perfection and vitality shared by mortal and immortal alike.” Don’t models occupy a similar position: below the designer-gods, but above the gazing, buzzing, picture-snapping public?
There are differences, of course. The nudity of the kouri had spiritual implications; the near-nudity of models in swim briefs sold retail. In fact, near-nudity turned out the most reliably eye-catching element in the men’s shows, though it was not without problems. You had to wonder, were we being asked to evaluate briefs or bums? By the time you figured out where your eyes were supposed to go, the show was over.
As I moved through the book, and through the week, I saw male fashion change. Instead of taking more off, men started putting more on. In a famous sixth century mosaic power-portrait, Justinian, emperor of Byzantium, looks almost architectural in his cloak of heavy silk and cloth-of-gold.