It all started with the dandy. 18th-century men dressed to display their wealth and status in society. Those men who could afford it wore luxurious clothes comprising rich silks, velvets and laces – not to mention wigs and high-heeled shoes. As foppish as they may have seemed, their clothes were not indicators of sexuality, but rather of wealth and taste. However, after the French Revolution, ostentatious display of wealth became politically incorrect, which in turn made any sartorial extravagance more of an individual statement. This then was the birth of the dandy. By no means necessarily homosexual, the dandy used his attire as a means of expressing something more about himself than mere wealth; it became a statement about his worldview. Thus a patterned handkerchief or colorful cravat became the marks of an aesthete. Even though not nearly as extravagantly attired as the pre-revolutionary gentlemen, the dandy still came off as relatively fastidious. As Thomas Carlyle put it, “others dress to live, he lives to dress.”
With the rise of capitalism, the new order of wealthy and powerful industrialists rejected any kind of fanciful dressing for more uniform, formal attire. The sober, stiff black suit became the masculine standard, while more colorful and fancy clothes became associated with the homosexuals who now donned them as signifiers to each other. In the late 1800's Oscar Wilde came to be seen as the ultimate dandy, the personification of what he called the “dangerous and delightful distinction of being different.” This difference was notoriously tainted after his infamous trial for homosexuality, which was illegal in Britain. Outside the realms of art and theater, dandyism took on derogatory connotations for much of the 20th century. Overt attention to fashion and sartorial flourish became sexually suspect in straight conformist society.
It took the menswear revolution of the 1960s to overcome the negative association of fashion and homosexuality. Everywhere youth subculture was on the rise, and on New York’s Christopher Street, the gay liberation movement was born. On London’s Carnaby Street, men’s clothiers that had heretofore sold mostly to gay clientele in theatrical and artistic circles, started producing faster, cheaper lines for a younger market. A new kind of dandyism arose, largely fueled by the music scene, and free from the conventional stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. That meant bright colors and prints, the return of opulent silks, velvets and brocades, and of course longer hair. It was newly acceptable for young men everywhere to be fashion-conscious, and to spend time and money to that end. In America, close-fitting European-style clothes that had been worn primarily by gay men, expanded their markets via new boutiques in Greenwich Village, as well as West Hollywood. Notions about dressing differently being strictly “gay” were relegated to “squares.”
In the early 70s an ironic kind of fashion reversal occurred. As bell-bottoms, bold prints and jewelry became more mainstream among straight men, gay men started adapting hyper-masculine styles and butch swagger. Working-class, cowboy, lumberjack, and tough-guy clothes became the new gay costumes of choice. Levis, plaid flannel shirts, work boots, leather, and notably mustaches all signified the new “Village People” machismo. What’s more, clothes were worn tight to show off the male body. This also meant the rise of gym culture, and the resulting “clone” look that would soon pervade gay male culture.
Meanwhile, Glam rock, aspiring for a glamorous androgyny, absorbed much of its flamboyant influences from gay men as well as from drag queens: including women’s clothes, high heels, tight-fitting pants, unisex attire, dandyish costumes, dyed hair, heavy makeup and of course the definitive glitter. The ultimate icon of the genre was none other than David Bowie via his stage alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. Rail thin, with flaming orange hair, elaborate makeup, and wearing outrageous sci-fi-inspired outfits, Bowie presented himself as sexually ambiguous and fluid, influencing many other music figures in his wake. Suddenly it was cool for rockers to at least come off as possibly gay, as was evidenced by the likes of Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, Brian Eno, Gary Numan and Prince. Ironically, Freddie Mercury, who really was gay, looked almost tame compared to some of his heterosexual contemporaries, indicating just how purely emulative music culture had become of gay culture. Other subculture trends such as shaved heads, Doc Marten boots, and braces were recycled via gay culture into fashion culture. Buffalo style, for one, originated in gay clubs and comprised mostly black and white clothes, with a mix of elements such as cycling shorts, flight jackets, hats, boots and, yes, skirts.
Soon gay designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier took fashion cues from the music world, as well as from what gay men were wearing on the streets and in clubs, and created men’s clothing that was calculated to be theatrical and provocative. Other gay designers such as Calvin Klein and Gianni Versace took gay fashion trends and translated them into men’s lines with a much wider appeal. Through the 80s and 90s it continued becoming more “normal” for straight men to show interest in their clothes, grooming and style. In response, there appeared new fashion and lifestyle magazines aimed at a heterosexual male readership, but with an implicit gay influence. Perhaps most tellingly, a new word came into use to describe the phenomenon of straight men who came off as fashionable and savvy as their gay peers: metrosexual.
Today it’s normal for both straight and gay men to be conscientious about their clothes and their look. Celebrities such as David Beckham exemplify how straight men can confidently wear sexy clothes that show off their bodies much as gay men did in previous decades. In fact it’s hard to distinguish gay and straight men solely on the basis of how they dress because men in general look more put together and stylish than ever. Hipsters, it might be argued, are even more style-conscious than most gay men.
In fashion, innovative men’s designers like Thom Browne take men’s classic looks and make them over with fitted proportions that once upon a time only a gay man or dandy would have dared wear. One of the most successful designers of our time, Tom Ford, happens to be very public about being gay, and his clothes are worn by some of the most high-profile and best-dressed straight men. Indeed the very labels “gay” and “straight” have become increasingly interwoven in contemporary fashion and culture. As hip-hop popstar Jay Z aptly put it: “I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford.” And that’s just dandy.