No, “retrosexual” doesn’t mean a sexual preference for vintage clothing. Well, it kind of does. We should back up a little bit.
Retrosexual is a loosely defined term that sprung up in the ’90s as an equal and opposite reaction to notion of “metrosexual.” Metrosexual, of course, was the trend in men’s culture that embraced a more sophisticated/urbane bent. Some of the founding fashionistas of metrosexual were David Beckham, Brad Pitt and everyone who was ever on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Metrosexuals actually cared about what they looked like and spent gobsmacking amounts of resources to maintain their carefully manicured appearance.
Retrosexual, therefore, was meant as the antithesis — a lateral move that encouraged Eisenhower-era, meat-and-potatoes masculinity. The torchbearers of retrosexual, if any could be found, were hypothetically just dudes who didn’t cotton to all this style stuff. The retrosexual was content to be a grunge caveman, unafraid to put as little effort as possible into their appearance.
So if the metrosexual man shopped for open-weave scarves and v-neck linen sweaters at Armani Exchange, so the theory went, the retrosexual man shopped for flannel shirts and long johns at Sears. Generally speaking, it was a manufactured rivalry between fashion trends that existed mostly in the media.
Both terms had fallen out of vogue, the idiom and the magazine, until “Mad Men” came along in 2007. The critically acclaimed television drama about the Manhattan advertising world of the early ’60s became a bit of a force within the pop zeitgeist, spawning a boomlet in the swanky duds sported by the cast. But more than reviving period-appropriate Brooks Brothers threads and Brylcreamed hair helmets, the show also redefined the notion of retrosexual.
For some, the pre-feminist milieu of “Mad Men” — where men were men and women were secretaries — was retrosexual heaven. It was a world of rugged individualism and stoic machismo, a halcyon era where “sexual harassment” was really just “workplace encouragement” and “in the closet” only meant “where I keep my rifles and girlie mags.”
Even though it’s been getting some media attention as a recent phenomenon in the wake of “Mad Men,” attention mostly focusing on the sartorial side of things, the concept of men being nostalgic for a “less complicated time” is nothing new.
“The first time I heard that term, my first thought was, ‘What problem is being addressed by something called “retrosexual”?’ What is the issue that gives rise to such a thing?” says Dennis Dailey, professor emeritus of social welfare at Kansas University, who specializes in human sexuality. “My reaction is that it’s not anything new — it’s a lot of men uncomfortable with having to revise their roles and how they play out their roles in the world, trying to reclaim their power and their male prerogative.”
An organization that’s been dealing with men getting back in touch with their y chromosome long before “retrosexual” was even a buzzword on the lips of excitable style reporters is the Mankind Project.
“The Mankind Project is an international, nonprofit men’s organization,” says Mark Zwahl, a Lawrence resident who serves as leader body chair for the Kansas City chapter The Mankind Project. “One of their missions is about reclaiming the sacred masculine … but I think of it as just growing up.”
The Mankind Project specializes in what’s called “men’s work,” a sort of male-centric self-help practice that sprung up in the ’80s as a reaction to the feminist movement. “For what it’s worth, there are a lot of men who have lost their power in the world to women,” Zwahl says. “I mean, that’s one of the things that happened in the ’80s and ’90s. Not that we didn’t deserve it and not that we still don’t — it’s still an unequal situation. Men are still the oppressors, white men especially. Whether we want to be or not, we still hold that role.”
In a very retrosexual fashion, men’s work proponents want to see men be proud about being men but are trying mightily to avoid any perception of patriarchal oppression in their quest to reclaim power.
“There’s a difference between power and control,” Zwahl says. “When you go back to the ’50s, you’re really talking about men in control. When we in our men’s work talk about men reclaiming their power, some people — men and women — will cringe. We have to differentiate — this is not about regaining control over other people; this is about reclaiming my personal power in my life and in the world. This is about internal power, the power within.
“So a lot of men are afraid to be powerful because we’ve been given the message that to be powerful is to be coercive and oppressive and controlling,” he says. “It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I think maybe that’s what the retrosexual trend is trying to scratch the surface of.”
Not everyone sees such benign intentions in this retro-tosterone attempt at empowerment.
“Yeah right — that and a nickel will buy you a root beer,” says a skeptical Dailey in response to the subtle distinction between power and control. “Not for one minute do I believe that — absolutely not. That’s just dressing it up and making it look slick. This is not just about the hats you wear, the shirts you wear and the haircuts you have — this is, I suspect, about something much more profound than that. It’s about feeling uncomfortable with being asked to step out of very traditional male roles. So they’re reclaiming those, repackaged in a lot of ways, and they know that in our culture today — in order to sell that — you can’t be overly sexist and overly misogynist. But that doesn’t make any difference.”
The urge by some men to regain their archetypal status, whether it’s through wearing three-piece suits or reigniting their “sacred masculine” through men’s work, indicates uneasiness with the current state of manliness. These men haven’t found what they’re looking for in current definitions of masculinity and are casting about for a more assertive persona.
But probably the only result these striving über-men are seeking in this quest for self, this soul-searching attempt to define what it means to be a man, is — let’s be honest — whether or not it can get you a date.
“I have to confess, there are quite frankly many more women than we probably want to think about who are looking for that kind of man,” Dailey says. “They are playing their roles very traditionally and are looking for that kind of traditional, male, strong, macho, beating on his chest and beating on his drums in the woods kind of guy. These guys aren’t going to have any problem finding women who will gravitate to that traditional kind of level. It’s the same way that there are plenty of men out there who are looking for women that are comfortable in a very traditional woman’s role.”
And how long will most other modern women be willing to put up the retrosexual schtick? “About 30 seconds,” Dailey says.