The man's man is back. And he's had enough of unisex salons, simpering emo music and the emasculating kryptonite of the Oprahsphere.
Or so say a spate of ads, books and websites that hail the emergence of the retrosexual, whose attitude and style hearken back to the strong, silent type of the '50s and early '60s.
The retrosexual keeps things simple. He does not own more hair and skin care products than his wife or girlfriend. He does not "accessorize."
Think Don Draper, the dapper, jut-jawed executive played by Jon Hamm in the AMC series "Mad Men." He may be a philanderer, but you won't find a pink shirt in his wardrobe. Like the dark hero characters of ex-spy Michael Westen in "Burn Notice" and U.S. Marshal Raylon Givens in "Justified," "Mad Men" presents alpha males who live unapologetically by their own code.
Loeffler's is the latest in a string of articles on the so-called Menaissance (see for instance this 2006 Boston Globe piece). What struck me, however, was the juxtaposition of Don Draper and Michael Westen (I've never seen Justified)--both exceedingly stylish figures. They may not own a lot of grooming products, but they do accessorize. Westen's sunglasses are, in fact, one of the show's signature props and have sparked much online discussion from viewers who want their own versions. (That'll be $400.)
The real contrast isn't between these guys and overgroomed Metrosexuals but between both groups, with their grown-up polish, and the beer-bellied American male in comfy shorts and untucked oversized shirt. On my recent trip to research glamour in Shanghai (more on that later), I talked with author and marketing consultant Paul French who, among many other interesting things, commented on why, with a few exceptions, American apparel lines haven't been terribly successful in Shanghai. U.S. companies are too attuned to the sloppy casualness of the American market, and Shanghainese like to look sharp. They want Banana Republic, he said, not The Gap--something that apparently escapes the parent company of both. (Instead of BR, there's a local knockoff called Urban Renewal.)
By way of illustration, French recounted what observed when two jet-lagged Americans came into the McDonald's where he and his 10-year-old son were having breakfast:
I noticed the Chinese were giggling at them. And then I looked at them. These guys were about my age. They’re in their 40s, right? And they had T-shirts, baseball caps, shorts, and then sort of sports shoes that looked like they had some tractor tires on the bottom of them. And I looked at them and then I looked my 10 year old who was not quite as casual as them.....If you put them on a bus and drove them around town, people would think they were retarded and going to the special place that they’re looked after for the day. I mean just isn’t it a shame? They never grew up mentality but they did physically.
No one would say that about either Michael Westen or Brad Pitt. What makes Retrosexuals seem manlier than Metrosexuals is their sprezzatura. They hide the artifice it takes to achieve their look. But the popularity of both models suggests that at least some American men want to escape the pressure to be sloppy.
I find this photograph very moving, and normally I might comment on various technical aspects such as the framing, the lighting, the tone, the pose, and so on. But I chose this photograph because it beautifully illustrates something that can be crucial to the concept of glamour—namely that artistic impressions are sometimes magical because of what the artist has chosen to leave out.
If we were seeing this young woman in real life, we could look move our eyes and see more, we could listen, we could ask questions, but here our perceptions are bound by the edges of the photograph and by the silent nature of the medium—we can only see what the photographer has allowed us to see. Far from limiting our responses, what we cannot see produces gaps, and these gaps allow us, as viewers, to let our imaginations and unconscious responses add something inexplicable to our perception of the image.
No one has ever expressed this thought better than Dylan Thomas in his Poetic Manifesto written in 1961:
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began.
You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.
In the case of this photograph, added bits of information (it’s a self-portrait, and she titled it, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault,”) may only serve to open up new holes for our imaginations to fill.
[The photograph “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault” is by Flickr user It’s life, and is used under the Creative Commons License.]
Meghan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House breaks from a long-standing trend in nonfiction publishing. Instead of a clever title followed by a long explanatory subtitle, it has no subtitle at all. It doesn’t need one, because the title itself so perfectly encapsulates a common, but rarely articulated longing. The book is all about the intense glamour of houses you don't have. I review it in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. Here's the beginning of the review.
For all the esoteric talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. "There is no object of desire quite like a house," writes Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.' "
The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV's low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and "For Sale" signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today's neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.
Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn't a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.
Read the rest here. You can buy the book (and read a good author interview) here.