Grotesque, freaky, weird, absurd. Those are just a few of the comments that were levelled at Thom Browne's recent Fall/Winter 2012 collection. The popular media has damned it as void of intellect, void of interest, being nothing more than a freak-show than a fashion show. As with most things in fashion, this is nothing new, it is oddly reminiscent of Rei Kawakubo's infamous Lumps and Bumps collection of Spring/Summer 1997. Kawakubo's collection was vehemently accused of being ugly, absurd and devoid of meaning. It is interesting to note that similar claims have also been made about much contemporary art. I would not go so far as to claim fashion is art, but as a form of artistic expression I think there is something more under the surface of Thom's latest outing. It made me smile, it made me think, and quite frankly, it surprised me.
Not so long ago advertisers and men's magazines were scared of using men to sell to other men. They feared displaying and revealing the male body because they feared it would be seen as homosexual. Revealing the female body was fine, it was normal for men to gaze at that, and it could be used as a reassurance of the viewer's heterosexuality. This was particularly of concern in magazines that usually aimed to sell what was considered outright feminine - fashion, cooking, interior design, etc. However whilst sex certainly sells, sometimes women are not the best advertising vehicle, especially when something needs some masculinity.
As more and more men crept into advertising, the media soon found that men were actually quite at ease with the display of the male body. Indeed they were often perfectly happy to see a male body revealed, whether it be a topless male, or even quite an erotically suggestive body. The men looked at the muscles, the women looked at the man. And so men were comfortable to admire in what was assured by the magazines and media as being in a perfectly heterosexual manner. The implicit homoeroticism is downgraded, because the male viewer is seen not as lusting after the person therein, rather they are desiring (lusting) after the body image. Looking at the man they want to look like the man. The nude male physique becomes a fetish object.
I can look at a photograph of David Beckham, shirt unbuttoned to show oiled abs, laid back and thrusting his padded underwear towards me, and my gaze is perfectly safe and heterosexual. The fact that the photograph is so incredibly erotically-charged, even though he is advertising a garment for what is assumed to be mostly heterosexual men, does not put the male viewer's gaze at any risk of being misinterpreted. The fact is that advertisers can produce images like this, clearly aimed at women, yet advertising products for men. For women the sexual element is explicit, whereas for men it is the fetish of the muscles. However the anxiety is always there, and advertisers are always careful of which side of the erotic line to employ.
For the modern self it has been argued that men fear being soft, whilst women fear being fat. A man supposedly needs to be hard, to be muscled, to be fit, all to be masculine. A woman supposedly needs to be thin, to be attractive, to be beautiful, all to be feminine. The difference in terms of social power between these two socially constructed gender ideals is massive. Freedman used the distinction of agonic versus hedonic power. Men are encouraged to exert agonic power, through their muscles and strength, they have a physical presence and a power that is overtly apparent. Women are encouraged to exert hedonic power, through their beauty and display, they have an indirect social power, where they are essentially encouraged to use their looks to wield power that is subvert. Where women employ elements of agonic power, for example with female bodybuilders, it is viewed as too masculine, and so they have to compensate with overtly feminine traits - hence the usually rather gaudy extensions and nails one sees. The same applies in reverse to men, for their masculinity is questioned through their use of feminized 'soft' power.
The masculine ideal is therefore strong and muscular, a physique most readily apparent in that most masculine of arenas - sports. Of course it is no coincidence that sports teams can be read as implicitly, if not on occasions as explicitly, homoerotic. This is also apparent in other arenas where the masculine ideal is present, namely the muscular and uniformly presented body of the soldier. With the army it is not only the physique that becomes fetishized, but the presentation of that body, with rigorous and exact detailing of dress and uniform. Designers have thoroughly explored the homoeroticism of the army stereotype, and it is one that has been appropriated and subverted by elements of the homosexual community for decades now.
In this collection I would argue that Thom is exploring masculinity and the sexualized body through the main elements of his own work - sportswear and tailoring. The hyper musculature, with its overt hyper masculinity, is applied to sportswear and tailoring to draw attention to the obsession with the ideal male body and the fetishization of muscles. He applies this not to athletic wear, not to sweaty gymwear, but to tailored and formal sportswear, making the point through a form of clothing thoroughly traditional and deeply encoded within the ideals of masculinity. The suit is an incredibly potent and traditional symbol, and so to subvert it in any way is to immediately question the very core of the masculine identity.
Note that Thom's hypermuscled men are entirely covered in cloth. The muscles bulge to comic proportions, but they remain within the confines of his expertly cut tailoring. We are not fetishizing their flesh, rather he makes sure that it is the muscles we notice. He makes this distinction thoroughly apparent by covering the muscled men up. Whilst this distinction is usually subtle in reality, for the male physique is usually shown partially nude, the suggestion is always implicit, regardless of the extent of its homoerotic content, that the (heterosexual) male gaze is aimed at the muscles and not the sexualized body. The man is seen as admiring the muscles, not the nude flesh, and here Thom makes sure that this is the only form of viewing available. We have no option but to gaze at the shape of the muscles, for with the flesh entirely covered there is nothing overly erotic on display.
Now we move to the looks where the fetish and the feminine is introduced. Interspersed amongst this supposed hyper-masculinity, with its agonic power, are looks suggesting submission and the feminine, with their inherent hedonic power. It is in these states that the sexual element and the erotic is explicitly evoked. Suddenly eroticism is allowed. But notice that here, where the sexual and erotic are so thoroughly pronounced, that there are no muscles.
The gimp mask is a highly powerful symbol, which in its normal context, so to speak, is paired with an entirely covered body. The body is usually covered head-to-toe in latex or leather, binding the flesh, with the mask making the person anonymous. They are reduced to the role of a sexual plaything, a submissive for the pleasures of the dominant partner. With the gimp the eroticism is not based on flesh, far from it, although there is the body revealing quality of this second skin - for you can 'see' everything, at the same time you can not, and you most certainly can not touch it. The leather or latex acts as a second skin, so whilst the dominant partner can touch the body of the gimp, they are never touching the actual flesh, there is an intermediary.
In Thom's gimps however, you can see flesh, you can see a midriff, exposed in a decidedly feminine manner. These are not the bulging abs of David Beckham in a men's underwear advert. They are trim, but they are not excessively muscular, rather they are almost feminine in their ideal. And it is in this feminized and submissive state that Thom allows the gaze of the viewer to be erotic. It is suddenly allowed in this exposed and hedonic state, whereas it was thoroughly denied in the muscular state. Indeed note the pubic wig, the sensually soft and furry merkin, peeking out of the trousers, drawing attention to the sexual organs. The erotic charge of these looks is made thoroughly explicit.
Whereas with the hyper-masculine muscle men, the flesh was covered, thus denying the erotic, with the submissive and feminine looks, the erotic is encouraged, if not outright shoved in your face. In such a way the collection effectively presents the dual roles of the male body, between the masculine ideal and the sexualized site. It questions the nature of the male gaze and subverts traditional notions of masculinity and the masculine-coded body.
The collection was not subtle it its approach, but why should it be? It is fashion - the subtle gets overlooked. Sometimes you have to shout to be heard, and here Thom did that with charm and wit. Besides, let us not forget that he has clothes to sell, and a presentation such as this is perfect to drum up attention. I do not think commerce stands in opposition to artistic expression - we tend to forget that Renaissance masters were not doing it for free, they were commissioned. It is only recently that artists have had the freedom to create for the sole purpose of exhibition rather than sales (although the prior usually leads to the latter).
This was a collection that made me think just as much as it made me smile, and that is never a bad thing.