“Do you have to align good dressing with being gay?”
This gripe comes from a fashionable colleague I’ll call Will, when I observe that the traditional demarcation between straight and gay dressers in this town has faded. Will, 30, thinks it’s dated and irrelevant to connect sexuality and style: “Dressing nicely is dressing nicely.”
Will, for the record, is straight, and at the moment is wearing dark-wash fitted jeans rolled once at the ankles, a fitted black button-down shirt rolled slightly to display a glimpse of the full-sleeve tattoo on his forearm (vaguely evocative of David Beckham’s), thrift-store brown wing-tips, and hair parted on the side and slicked down.
He attributes his sense of style to an awakening he had in his late 20s, when he was living in New York and grew tired of his typical jeans/Vans/t-shirt look: “I just wanted to stop dressing like a kid.” He noticed that a friend, a fellow t-shirt devotee whose wife worked in fashion, had started wearing clothes that she brought home. “And it was like, ‘Damn, you look cool,’” Will remembers. “It sort of hit me: I wanted to dress to look good. And so I did.”
Will’s right that fashion as gay men’s territory has become passé: The ’90s metrosexual thing feels about 100 years old, and even back then it wasn’t very progressive, mostly just dancing around how many grooming tips a straight guy could take from a gay one before he primped himself out of Real Man territory. And there are plenty of gay men who can’t dress, and straight guys who have always been able to. But none of that changes the fact that the probability of finding a non-gay, non-European, non-industry Philly man who’s knowledgeable about style has doubled since I moved here six years ago.
“When I was growing up, wanting to look like a Ralph Lauren model was code for being gay,” says Todd Vladyka, a physician who lives in Center City (Alexander McQueen blue suede Pumas, pre-shrunk Levi’s, A.P.C. crew-neck sweater, Glashütte Panorama wristwatch). Now, Todd, 44, is gay, which gives him extra credence when he talks about the murky overlap between fashion and sexuality. “I think for straight men then, there was enough discomfort and homophobia that if you went too far emulating the look of another guy, it was sexual territory.”
Steve Duross (purple checkered button-down, fitted turquoise t-shirt, slim-cut jeans, Stacy Adams shoes) came of age at roughly the same time. The 50-year-old owner of Gayborhood bath and grooming store Duross & Langel thinks the stigma surrounding fashionable guys only blossomed post-1970s. “Before then,” he says, “all men tried to be natty dressers. They wore suits, hats, shined shoes. It’s a man’s birthright to look good. Like peacocks and cardinals—it was always the men who wanted to attract women.” Just think about all those manly clotheshorses of yesteryear: Joe Namath, Frank Sinatra, F. Scott Fitzgerald … all the way back to Henry VIII. (The codpiece, for God’s sake!)
Anyway, Steve theorizes that the sexual revolution and a breaking-free of social constraints in the late ’60s and ’70s allowed various groups to shed convention and celebrate distinct identities—gays included. By the ’80s, “There was much more visible
differentiation—an us vs. you that translated to clothes.” Looking too dapper became suspect, since gays had always enjoyed more of a reputation as arbiters of style. This led to the fork in the fashion road that endured into the 21st century. (“Though you know what really seems gay to me?” Steve asks. “Grown men who wear jerseys with another man’s name on the back.”)
Today, though, guys everywhere are coming back around to style. Coach’s men’s-only stores quadrupled sales in their first two years; stiletto god Christian Louboutin told Forbes that men’s shoes are approaching 25 percent of his business; online retailers saw menswear grow by more than a third last year. (Gains in women’s wear slowed.) Here in Philly, Todd and his partner, Jim Hinz, have launched a men’s jewelry line likely to appeal to the same men who’d buy those Louboutins; it's carried by the Egan Day jewelry boutique.
So what spurred this return to men’s peacock roots after a few anachronistically sloppy decades? Nothing short of a cultural evolution. It’s like Todd says: “The slow progression of gay iconography into the mainstream media changed things. There’s just a whole new generation of people who haven’t known the sort of homophobia that was out there and don’t fear the repercussions of being called gay or seeming gay.” (Todd on the first time he walked into an Abercrombie & Fitch: “The music! The homoerotic Bruce Weber photos! I thought: I’m in a gay nightclub in 1998! There was even a cologne called ‘Fierce’! I knew then that something had changed.”)
What’s more, he adds, these days, nobody—gay or straight—cares to be pigeonholed. “I think we’ve all moved to the middle ground, where we won’t be defined by how we dress. I see young straight men playing with clothes in a very theatrical way, with their super-American-heritage things, their waxed mustaches. And I see gay men in their 40s who have moved toward cargo pants and t-shirts, and tank tops going on in places where there shouldn’t be tank tops.
“In some ways,” he continues, “the straight men are beating us.” And he laughs.