Lookin' Good - Cyanide & Happiness Shorts
Not long ago I drove 4,700 miles across the United States on an epic voyage of self-discovery. Somewhere around Knoxville, Tennessee, I started to notice that men looked a lot more presentable than they had in times past--in fact they were looking good! (The women, as usual, looked just fine.) Whether it was the junior executive in Philly, the frat boy in Charlotte, North Carolina, the hipster in Washington, or the good ol' boy in Augusta, Georgia, men were clearly putting in more time getting their hairstyle just right and fussing with their beards and mustaches. They were devoting unprecedented amounts of time and energy to getting the total package working. I had set out on my trip expecting everyone to look like they'd just fallen out of bed. But in this I was very much mistaken.
In reporting that men are devoting more time and effort towards their personal grooming routines each morning, I am not talking about metrosexuality. Metrosexuality, we now all agree, was a scam concocted in London a few years ago by evil marketers hell-bent on persuading men to get rid of their body hair and wear more smelly cologne. It was a fad that enjoyed a mercifully brief moment until everyone realized it was idiotic. Then it evaporated. It evaporated because men in Baltimore and Kansas City didn't really want to look like gallery owners, script boys, or cutting-edge baristas from Los Angeles and Copenhagen; they wanted to look like men from Baltimore and Kansas City. The fact that guys today care a whole lot more about their bodies, their hair, their clothes, and their overall look than they did a generation ago is a question of sexuality, not metro-sexuality.
In my travels across the country, I asked guys how much time they spent getting ready in the morning. Thirty to 45 minutes was the usual response. Jesus! That's about three times the amount guys spent back in my youth, when men got their grooming concepts from the Allman Brothers. I could never get guys to admit that they patterned their look after Brad Pitt or George Clooney or Michael Jordan or the cast ofEntourageor Christian Bale as Batman, but it was obvious that they had. Nor did anyone sporting 4 days, 6 hours, and 28 minutes of stubble want to admit that his meticulously choreographed appearance of dishabille was probably derived from David Spade. Who'd want to admit that?
By saying that men work harder on their look now than they did in times past, I am certainly not suggesting that the average male can yet hold a candle to the average female style-wise. This is because, as Garrison Keillor once observed, no matter how hard men work at things involving the other sex, deep down, we secretly believe that a C+ is good enough. The reason? We care only enough to create the illusion that we care a lot. We also lack the stamina that women possess in spades.
The Downward Spiral
Upon my return to the East Coast, I spent an entire day in New York City checking out men's appearances. I studied their hair, their beards, their jackets, their shirts, their ties, their pants, their socks, their shoes. I took a lot of notes. After scrutinizing literally hundreds of men of all ages, I came away with one distinct impression: Men start at the top with tremendous resolve and energy but gradually begin to lose interest as they work their way south. Everybody from 30-something construction workers in Harlem to baby-faced stockbrokers on Wall Street clearly spends time and money on his hair. Everybody with facial hair is working at getting it just right. But once guys arrive in the haberdashery department, a certain loss of energy reveals itself. Here they become oddly generic in their look.
"Basically, guys get their fashion ideas from the Gap," reports a stylist friend of mine. "They care about their hair. They really don't care as much about their clothes." Moreover, they care a lot more about their jackets, shirts, and trousers than they do about their shoes and socks. By the time you work your way down to the footwear, the initial passion, energy, and ingenuity devoted to the hair are long gone. Again and again, regardless of the age, size, income level, or profession of the men I studied, their footwear was a major disappointment. Work shoes with dressy pants. Cheesy. Brown loafers with blue jeans. Appalling. White socks with black oxfords. A hanging offense. The sad truth is, given half a chance, men will wear sneakers just about anywhere: the Vatican, the opera, their own funeral. The best explanation I've come across for this is from theSeinfeldepisode in which Jerry excoriates George for wearing sweatpants. Sweatpants, he argues, are a fatal sign that a man has given up, that he has finally decided that comfort trumps fashion. Hair care and facial grooming do not involve comfort, nor does one's choice of shirts. But trousers and footwear are the fulcrums of comfort, and this is where men get lazy.
Do men ever check each other out? That is, straight men? Here I got some interesting responses. Straight men will never admit, at least not to another straight man, that they look at other men for fashion ideas. This strikes them as gay. We don't even feel comfortable looking at male mannequins. There is only one exception to this rule: When another man's getup seems worthy of ridicule, we feel justified in sneering at such oafish cluelessness. Why? Because it gives us a sense of moral (read: sartorial) superiority. Recently, when I attended a concert featuring the '70s headbangers Mountain, I noticed a paunchy man well into his 50s wearing tight black leather pants.
"That is a bad, bad look," said my companion, a classic rock aficionado with limited interest in fashion, but an extraordinarily clear sense of what is and what is not appropriate attire for a paunchy middle-aged man.
"Should we tell him?" I asked. My friend thought that would be too cruel. But I still wish we had. Partially to upbraid him for embarrassing his own generation. But also to let him know that he wasn't getting away with anything.
Why do young men pay so much attention to their appearance these days? To get women. How long does this obsession with appearance last? Till they get women. What kinds of guys are least likely to worry about their appearance? Impossible to say. One of the best turned-out young men I encountered was a stocky guy sauntering through Times Square in hip-hop attire. His hair was studiously cropped. His beard was perfectly manicured. His jacket was suitably oversize; his shorts and black athletic shoes filled out the urban ensemble to perfection.
"Do you work at your look?" I asked the young man, tentatively.
"And where do you get your fashion ideas from?" I asked.
"The Bronx," he replied.
Beats David Spade any day of the week.
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