The men at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. A reading. Or a looking at the images. In England we are in the age of Conservative boys who get more jowly each day. You’ll see them photographed having a run, but if you watch closely – look at the formerly boyish Clegg and Danny Alexander – the bodies are paunchier and softer all the time.
These men will not give us a fashionable body image to work with. As ever, the ideas are in magazine adverts: compulsive, fantastic, beautiful images. Do you ever ask about the shape of the men in these adverts? Are they skinny, muscular, sporty – do they ever carry body fat?
So… the boys on the ASOS website have that Danny Dyer energy. They are young and laddish – cheeky and tough – they seem quite happy and look like they are on some kind of blag. They don’t look like models. They don’t look skinny. They could star in a low-budget Brit film about signing, smoking joints and doing a bit of shoplifting. They don’t have a care in the world. Topman are less “street”. They lead with a concept they call “Trans Siberia”, which features a skinny (yes, skinny) youth with long hair and fey tendencies, photographed in empty white space. The poor boy looks lost. As if reading Dorian Gray has got him nowhere. I would say he is too poor and not quite beautiful enough to realise his slender-decadent dreams. The ASOS boys in comparison, their dreams are easier to realise; they live in a world of cheery mateyness and are only ever just a pint or shag away from nirvana.
AllSaints also lead with a bookish boy. He lurks in sultry black and white and looks away from the camera. You can’t tell if he’s skinny or hunky because he is encased in layers of shirts and coating and he threatens, as he looks down, to vanish into whatever novel or mood board he is regarding. The man most likely to catch your eye on the Dolce website is David Gandy, wearing just his glasses and showing an outsize, if not gargantuan, mix of bicep, pectoral and deltoid, complete with raised blood vessel courtesy of muscular bulge.
The Dolce & Gabbana print ads are nerdy; the boys look skinny and weak. Perhaps Dolce are hedging their bets – they usually run group ads with a mixture of men and body types. Some chunkier, others skinny. And if you look closely at their geeky men, there is the possibility that, beneath the white shirt, boils a lean, muscular body.
Over at various model agencies, the new faces (Men) team are looking for “anyone who is beautiful and strong”. They don’t have to be “really anorexic or really massive”. So what are you looking for? “Anyone who catches the eye. Strong features. The muscular man is making a return from the skinny, androgynous look. The high street is looking for more ‘street-styled’ guys. A bit rough and tough. Not typical-looking models.”
The high street (see ASOS above) is somewhere between Professor Green and Dappy, which is a long way from Dior Homme, Ralph Lauren, Dolce and Lanvin, who have no interest right now, at the end of 2011, in young scaffolders and working-class lads. And, yes, that does leave open space for a really tough working-class Lauren shoot, but I have a feeling that Simon Foxton and Jason Evans used to play this game a long time ago for the likes of i-D.
There is also space for a book or long visual meditation on very skinny boys and young men, even perhaps as the Dior trend has passed. There is a history and an aesthetic that’s worth exploring, even as the look is moving towards the distant high edges of fashion. Who was super skinny in rock and pop? Joey Ramone, Sid Vicious (who started wearing ripped jeans after seeing The Ramones, said Dee Dee Ramone), Nick Cave, Blixa
Bargeld – the point being the visual legacy of very skinny men hovers on murkier edges of the mainstream, where drugs, death, art, rough trade, blood and decadence happily co-exist. It’s a long way from Danny Dyer.
No one seems to do “fat”. The only advertising image of a man with some natural, regular white fat is the comedian Greg Davies – there are posters of him topless all over London. It is clear that he does not work out, but his body, which is not muscular, but fleshy and pale and flowing, carries the feeling of a Lucian Freud – there is a presence of flesh. There is a cultural reaction against this flesh at the moment, but it really does have its own energy and its own beauty. You will just have to retrain your eyes and your mind to see this flesh for what it is – what it really is.
The leading model agencies are not looking for flesh. The “high-end fashion labels are still looking for lean, edgy and slender” says another agency insider. But they are also looking for guys who are toned and ripped. “It’s just not that clear cut. There’s more diversity in men.” Although sample sizes stop at 38in, which means a model like Sebastian Sauvé (40in) is as big as they get. If there’s a margin left to push, it’s “big”, as in muscular rather than fat. Sean Connery, for example, in 1953 had a 48in chest.
We know Connery’s measurements because, before his film career, he was a bodybuilder and entered the Mr Universe competition in 1953, representing Scotland. Entrants were measured. Bodybuilders have an interest in stats because they are gorgeous show ponies. And Connery’s full stats, back in the
1953, included (alongside a chest that would destroy a modern modelling career) 25in thighs and 15in around the upper arms.
The history of bodybuilding doesn’t appear to connect with the history of fashion because the men don’t wear any clothes. If you look at bodybuilding magazines, certainly from 1930 to the 1970s, what they wear are posing pouches, thongs, shorts and, every now and again, gladiator sandals.
Sometimes they accessorise with a javelin. It is cute for underwear modelling, but photographs of chunky men in their underpants… I was tempted to say, “Well, this doesn’t get close to the heart or history of fashion”, but then I remembered four little words: “Calvin” and “Klein” and “Marky” and “Mark”.
We should also note that no one really talks about bodybuilding any more. But we do work with weights and go the gym. It is the same activity but the language has changed. Which may have something to do with what happened in the 1970s when men started to use food supplements and steroids, as David Webster notes in his history of bodybuilding Barbells and Beefcake. And some of them got very big indeed. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the male bodybuilders had, on average, 41in chests. They really weren’t that big. They could pass for Men’s Health cover stars and work as Brad Pitt body doubles.
But the 1970s bodybuilders are “big”: Schwarzenegger had a 57in chest. Sergio Oliva (a famous 1970s bodybuilder with a striking, beautiful body) married a 55in chest to a 26½in waist. There are pictures of Larry Scott in which his thighs look thicker than his waist. And these stats, the 50in chest and 22in around the upper arm, this is a long way from Lanvin. But beautiful in its own way and rarely, I think, seen or used in fashion. So, very “big” might have some mileage. Like those enormous pectorals that James McAvoy briefly sprouted for Wanted. And if you want an image you cannot tear your eyes away from do look at pictures of bodybuilder Larry Scott in his gold lamé shorts with thighs that appear to be thicker than his middle. And any image “you cannot turn your eyes away from” may carry that element of compulsion that makes it valuable as an advertising or fashion image.
Anyway, back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, certain bodybuilders crossed over into Hollywood where they were cast as Nubian slaves, gladiators and warriors (sandals, javelins and all that). Some of them are still a little famous; someone must still hold a candle for Victor Mature and Steve Reeves (Hercules and Hercules Unchained from the late 1950s), but they live again in films like 300 or Clash of the Titans, which work with the classic (male) bodybuilder physique.
And if we look back at more recent history, then it is interesting that both Slimane and Dior Homme exist in the same cultural time-space as 50 Cent, the pumped Gandy (for Dolce specs) and the film 300 with all of its magnificent Spartans. These are the extreme poles of masculine body shape and identity. It would be great to remake 300 with the Spartans battling Nick
Cave, The Horrors and the entire runway cast of Dior Homme, Lanvin et al.
Any man’s body has potential. You are probably born tall and skinny but other shapes can be “built”. And the world, for many of us, seems hard. So we will muscle up to meet it. Skinny remains a distant aesthetic, rich and decadent, doable if you are protected by wealth or beauty. But if you are in the great struggle of life (recessions, jobs and all that), then muscles are not only beautiful, but they give power.
by Tony Marcus