The structure of society, intended to create borders constraining where appropriate behavior begins and ends, was composed and reified from a masculine perspective. Thus, forces serving to subvert that structure are most often feminine in nature, and femininity holds the status of “other.” I have no desire to argue whether or not this is morally acceptable, but am more interested in exploring the place of masculinity within the non-traditional world of fashion.
Thom Browne started as a designer for men. Therefore, what remains the most captivating aspect of Thom Browne women’s wear is the designer’s readily apparent passion for the traditional male aesthetic. Conceptually it is quite clear that for Thom it all begins with a gray suit. His first “collection” consisted of five suits he made for himself and wore around town in an attempt to “beg” his friends to buy one.
Following the downward turn of his acting career in L.A., the young designer would buy suits from vintage shops and experiment with their proportions, cutting them down and running them in the dryer to recreate that shrunken look. Sheer passion for his personal aesthetic drove Browne to desire this new style of dress. As he told New York Magazine, “I feel like jeans and a T-shirt have become Establishment… Everyone’s dressed down. So actually putting on a jacket is the anti-Establishment stance.” (“The Dapper Mr. Browne”)
For many, the suit epitomizes masculinity in fashion. Symbolically, the suit represents more specifically masculine notions of tradition, strictness, rigidity, and conservatism. In fact, the tie was once referred to as “the yolk of responsibility.” Alteration of cloth and stitch serves as more than a reinterpretation of men’s wear – Thom’s vision casts men’s wear as a medium for reforming these traditional masculine ideals.
Thom’s muse explained, “He kind of does his thing and he has his life, and everything is very understated. His house is very lived in, but in a good way. It’s not interior-decorated or anything like that, but it is decorated. He’s health-conscious, but not too. He eats well, but he’s not preoccupied: He will have cream and butter, and he will drink. And he’s nice.” These words bring to mind a certain nostalgia for the “All-American Boy” but marked with a new sophistication.
Browne’s imagination is, dare I say it, metrosexual. Tailoring is key to Browne’s work and he champions the idea of the slim fit, normalizing a look once relegated to a hipster subculture. Yet what makes Browne’s work great, though slightly less accessible, is the difficulty of actually wearing his designs. The exaggerations of the proportions are so extreme that his clothing has even been described as “fascist.” The pants and arms are so shortened and restrictive that inches of wrist and ankle are on display, infusing the suit with a head-turning boyishness. Browne made the suit young again.
While these innovative proportions were Browne’s greatest contribution, they also served to produce his greatest opponents initially. “People said, ‘It’s not what everybody’s doing,’ but I had no interest in being just another designer. I wanted people to respond, negatively or positively.” (“America: Conqueror of the Global Menswear Market”) Browne worked from within a structure and created the structural suit. Innovation from within pre-existing confines is an extremely masculine process of creation. Yet, Browne’s masculinity includes tones of boyishness, theatrics, and Hollywood styling, thereby broadening the definition of masculinity into a distinct, perhaps queerer, masculinity. And people are responding.