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Fashioning Masculinities - What Makes a Man, by Sonny Thaker

Man posing naked in black and white
  • Written byPost-Grad Community
  • Published date 14 June 2022
Man posing naked in black and white
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

What Makes a Man, by Sonny Thaker, MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion student and Post-Grad Community Ambassador

Postgraduates and alumni from across UAL were treated to yet another brilliant Mixer event organised by Post-Grad Community. Visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) for the brilliantly curated Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear exhibit (running until Sunday 6 November 2022), this was one of the best attended events of the year and nothing short of spectacular.

It was all about the Men...

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you consider masculinity? Go ahead close your eyes, take a breath — pause for a second... for what I have asked is no simple question, even though it may sound as such.

Fashioning Masculinities entrance
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

As you pondered masculinity, what did you envision? What did you feel? What places in your mind were you whisked away to? Did you see muscles? Perhaps you were met with strength? Did you conjure the protector, the provider or the powerful? Maybe you just thought of your Father. None of these images, would be wrong, however thankfully most would be met as old ideas that have fallen out of favour and are slowly starting to crumble.

Now I know there will be Jordan Peterson fans in the readership who have either already put this article down, discounting it as drivel, perhaps feeling I am threatening the very idea of masculinity, simply by suggesting its evolution. In his book 12 Rules for Life, Peterson remarks;

And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.

He professes the eroding of masculinity as we know it can only lead to chaos and in fact refuses to accept non-binary as existent in any form. Yet his beliefs in the traditional outdated aspects of being a man are quite prevalent. He is in-fact one of the highest paid and busiest public speakers out there.

So what are men so scared of & what does fashion have to do with it?

Blue artwork of dancing man in platform boots
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

Let me ask you... when you were thinking of Masculinity, did fashion, creativity, colour, style or beauty enter your mind? Were you imagining torsos stripped down with perfectly sculpted flexing arms or bodies that were nimble and arms that were thin? Maybe for some there were hairy bodies, but were those overweight and realistic or perfected in some archetypal form of strength?

I will venture to say that most, did not even think to gravitate towards thoughts of effeminate men in any shape or form. In fact, as a gay man myself, I have often felt less than whole within my own community for just being a 'regular guy’ and not matching up to the hyper masculine bodies that are making all efforts to belong to a society that rejected them, oh so long ago. Images and forms that were captured and immortalised by Tom of Finland, in fact shaping an entire culture in the gay scene for men to relate to in a fashion beyond clothing.

This fascination with strength and with the expectation to be more, to do more and for men to be perfect is not new. In Fashioning Masculinities, you will learn that this goes back to ancient times and beyond reality to Greek mythology and the stories of Hercules, who was rarely seen to rest. Yet in the very few times he was portrayed as such, it was considered to be beautiful and, in some way, extraordinarily strange.

Sketch of Herculean figure
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

You will come to understand that the fashion and beauty industry are complicit in their constant reinforcement of these masculine stereotypes. Feeding us all with athletic images, white dominated stories and best of all, a whole lot of over hyped boring blahhh that is the same old, same old, season, after season, after season. Blue denim, white t-shirts, navy suits, and boring dress shirts remain staples in most men’s wardrobe, while women are free to express their inner and outer beauty with splashes of style, prints that pop and colours that communicate.

It wasn’t always like this though. Men in fact were once leaders in style. This was not only seen in one culture, but it was also true across the world as demonstrated by men from many different nations. Fashion in fact used colours like red to convey power. Style and good tailoring were used to convey status. Creativity in appearance was not shamed, instead it was celebrated throughout history. Men of all sizes and shapes were allowed to remain men in who they were, without being prodded into becoming something homogenous and less imaginative that they should be. There was even a time where the sexual relations of men between men was a thing of beauty and not a thing of absolute disgust.

Mid-18th century men's clothing
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

So what happened I wonder?

As time has progressed flamboyant style for men has gradually diminished. Just walk down the street and you will see hundreds of men, in cookie cutter suits exhibiting bare minimum effort in their presentation style. To ask them about fashion, you will usually be met with a standardised reply of “I don’t care” or “it makes no difference to me” Is this the truth? Or is it a colonial society that has gradually given more and more power to men. Men that have continued to take liberty upon being and doing as they so please... simply because they can. Men that admonish their nonchalant attitudes upon all those they meet, in a show of determined independence. Men that expect their women to beautify themselves as concubines for their amusement... for they are doing all the providing and so they should be rewarded — right?

Contemporary men's suits bursting with colour
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

Thankfully this is slowly and surely shifting. A new tale is spinning and the thoughts of men choosing power over creativity are starting to take shape with Gen Y & Gen Z trailblazing a new paradigm. Look to the sneaker culture of today and you will find an explosion of colour, style and creativity booming from the shop shelves to the pavements pounded. Men around the globe are lining up to exhibit their own sense of style and culture, hoping to catch a limited drop of Supreme sweats or Bathing Ape T’s in hopes of standing out in style just as the men of yesteryear did in their masterfully tailored and blissfully glamorous garb. Miraculously the men of now and potential leaders of our future are even shedding shame when it comes to beautifying themselves with hair, nails and make up.

There is only one thing I could fault with the Fashioning Masculinities exhibit. Although they managed to wonderfully capture so much diversity and variety as we are whisked through time learning how men dressed, there was little to no mention of sportswear or athleisure. Somehow this very key fashion category was largely missed. Most men I know today could rate themselves as experts in this casual no effort look, with looks from Nike, Adidas, Tommy, and other such brands being the stars of the present show. There was a gap in the exhibit I could not connect, where men went from being brilliantly curated fashionistas in time, to men in boring black and neurotic navy Saville Row suits. Still however there was so much to take in and learn in this incredible visit. One not to be missed.

Mirage of dancing men
Image: Sonny Thaker Artwork: Fashioning Masculinities

Going forward, as you think of men and as you consider masculinity, I challenge you to rethink what you consider to be the defining qualities of what makes a man. I know for me, considering the human and their qualities regardless of my gendered expectations is helping to see the world in a different and much more beautifully creative way. A world not defined by binaries, but instead where people are allowed to be people and express themselves fully without shame.

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