Archive for Monday, May 31, 2010


Returned male: ‘Retrosexual’ trend taps into desire for manliness of yore

May 31, 2010


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.


number3of5 7 years, 10 months ago

Retrosexual is a stupid word. My husband has dressed in denim and flannel all of his live. He grew up on a farm and clothes had to last through chores, not make a fashion statement. In the summer he wore chambray shirts, that is until fashion made them so popular in the 60's that they were no longer afforadable. His denim has changed from jeans that hugged his body, to overalls, and now back to loose fitting jeans again. His dress suit is an overall suit that I made for him. I am proud of the fact that he dresses like a man and not some fashionista. I am also proud of his hairy chest, without hair on their chest the rest of the so called men are just boys.

feetup 7 years, 10 months ago

3 of 5, i totally agree. the men in my life have always dressed just as you describe. I love them that way. Always have, always will. The men that work with their hands,work hard, sweat n dirt, jeans tshirts, flannel, boots with mud have always attracted me! i have to confess, my 2nd exhusband was the first man i every went out with that own and wore a tie to work. Note EX just didn't work for me. I require a man who is all the above and will be a life partner, not an oppressive dolt.

Kookamooka 7 years, 10 months ago

How simplistic. It's always more complicated than that. Smart women have high expectations for men. Men have to evolve. Men need to be partners in life, not dictators. Husbands who bring home the bacon AND fry it up in a pan AND never, ever, ever let me forget he's a man, are good guys to have around. Oh yeah...they also need to change diapers and fix stuff.

pagan_idolator 7 years, 10 months ago

I don't care so much how they dress - well unless its a plaid shirt with striped pants or something - but I do care how they behave. I don't mind strongly masculine men as long as they aren't oppressive.

puddleglum 7 years, 10 months ago

nothing wrong with a chic or two attracted to a pretty person like myself. course I don't need any kind of label or whatever warning-sticker preparing a hot date with the oozing testosterone she will find herself bathing in later on in.....

metrosexuals are so passe. retrosexual is just a dumb tag.

there are many males out there, but not all of them are MEN.

pagan_idolator 7 years, 10 months ago

Ahhh - bathing in oozing testosterone.......favorite pastime. Where would we be without testosterone oozing pretty men such as yourself?

puddleglum 7 years, 10 months ago

sorry to hear that. most people would call that oozing urination.

puddleglum 7 years, 10 months ago

probably sitting on a sectional, drinking daiquiris and watching sex and the city.

That's why you need pretty men like me-grab a six pack and a bowl of frito's and watch some good clint eastwood movie.

Mark Zwahl 7 years, 10 months ago

Mark Zwahl here. To be clear, the men's work I'm involved in (MKP and men's work in general) is certainly not about reclaiming power or control over people. It is about undoing some of the damage that the "old way" of treating boys, men, girls and women - did to us (repressing emotions, only able to express anger/rage, entitlement mentality etc.). And ultimately - for me at least - it's about becoming a well-adjusted and well-balanced adult who also happens to be male.

And neither of these labels (metro/retro sexual) have much to do with reality or what's really going on out here in the real world.

I think I'm in agreement with most of the comments thus far. I think they sorta set Dennis up to disagree w/ me, but I'm guessing we're on a similar page about the foolishness of the idea of "retrosexuals".


beim 7 years, 10 months ago

I think all the labels being placed American men's fashion is so popular here because first of all many men here are actually unable to know how to dress and or they are afraid to actually stand out and put something new on. Honestly the USA has got to have some of the worst male dressing in all of the world. If you go to Netherlands, the men look good, if you go to Russia, the men look real good, go to the inner city in Mexico, they look good, and let's not go any further south to say maybe Argentina; they're stylin'. One thing is for sure, if you like to look good and wear clothes that don't consist of athletic shorts or ku shirts everyday don't tag yourself with some label such as Retrosexual, that is for guys who are not self confident, go ahead and be your own label, one of individualism and of one that doesn't care what the hell your labeled because you know your looking and feeling good!

Liberty275 7 years, 10 months ago

Real men don't follow trends, they just remain who they are without regard for what others think or whether or not they are hip or cool.

denak 7 years, 10 months ago

Oh lord help me. It is bad enough that someone somewhere makes some arbitrary definition of what female beauty is, do we really have to do the same b.s. with men?

Real men....and what their hearts desire. It doesn't matter if one dresses in jeans and boots or slacks and loafers. The clothes does not make the man.

And considering that many of the "retrosexuals" were homosexual, I kind of wonder if this isn't some sly attack on homosexuals.

Lastly, most women don't give a crap what a man wears (unless it is shorts to a funeral) what they want is a man who is going to be faithful, help raise the children and help provide for them and grow old with their woman. I don't think that type of man ever goes out of style.


puddleglum 7 years, 10 months ago

I think most women actually prefer a pretty man-such as myself, driving an el camino, and wearing a good ol' pair of aviators

denak 7 years, 10 months ago

Yes but for the unlucky women who can not attract such a good looking man such as yourself PG, they just have to make due with a man who has other characteristics. Not everyone can be as lucky to get a man who drives an El Camino and wears aviator glasses. Just a sad fact of life. :(

puddleglum 7 years, 10 months ago

the unlucky women may settle for dudes driving camaros and mustangs...poor women who settle for males driving a prius, fit, or other import need to beware: although the driver may be male-he is clearly NOT a man.

be safe-be pretty

pagan_idolator 7 years, 10 months ago

I agree - I don't think very many men are as fussy as this article suggests.

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