Until recently, male motivation for looking good or strong was often born from an inherent desire for us to feel and appear more successful, competitive, virile and powerful – what some now refer to as toxic masculinity.
Of course, there have always been men who’ve enjoyed discussing clothes, watches, even grooming regimes but, for many, this open appreciation of what they wore was often merely a game of one-upmanship disguised as an appreciation of the finer things in life. Think of the 1980s and its bullish Wall Street status stamps, such as pinstripe suits and red braces (Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko); the scene in American Psycho where rival stockbrokers battle over business cards, like a game of Top Trumps. Or in the 1990s, when showing off got even easier and even off-duty symbols such as underwear, jeans and luggage were plastered with a riot of logos.
But, thankfully, there’s a new generation that is now adopting a very different approach. How they look isn’t being dictated by a desire to appeal or to appease others, but to feel comfortable with who they are. And, as a society, we’re becoming less judgmental and more accepting of those who look and feel differently to us.
When I was at school in the 1970s, carrying a comb in your blazer pocket was seen as immense vanity. You could be teased about it for weeks. Yet last week my 17-year-old goddaughter and two male friends turned up at my flat, having been accidentally locked out of her house, to hang out until they got hold of some spare keys. The two boys were wearing foundation, eyeshadow and tinted lip balm. They were emulating their favourite K-pop bands and hiding any blemishes they may have had on their teenage skin. The fact that they looked good and appeared so confident, was joyful to behold.
It was a joy, too, to see singer and actor Olly Alexander’s mesmerising performance at the Brits with Elton John, where he shimmied around the stage in makeup, earrings and a cropped lace top with matching flared trousers by American-British queer designer Harris Reed, singing It’s a Sin. “I wanted something that would make me feel strong and sexy, but that was also beautiful and fluid,” Alexander said. The overtly “queer” performance received rave reviews, even from the Daily Mail.
Obviously, for most of us, an avid interest in how one looks is no longer seen to undermine what one thinks or achieves. Look at the genius of Eddie Izzard, who has now adopted the pronouns she and her, or Grayson Perry and his female alter ego Claire. Or think back to the 17th century and Louis XIV’s brother, the Duke of Orléans, who enjoyed the company of men, as well as that of his two wives, and would often turn up to balls in full female attire. And yet on the battlefield he led the French army to numerous victories. The only criticism of his soldiering skills was that he was often a little late to battle since it took him rather a long time to get dressed.
Yet, sadly, some men today still find it utterly perplexing, infuriating even, that others care or play with how they look, which is why I’ve written a book aimed at removing the stigma about men and their grooming choices, helping them to look their best – only if that’s what they desire. It is for those men who perhaps feel unsure about who to ask, where to go, or what to do.
Middle-aged men in particular still tend not to confide in each other, or anyone really, about their looks. Because I write about men’s style and grooming and have edited a few men’s magazines, I’m often seen as someone guys can confide in about their looks. I’m occasionally cornered in an office or at a party on the pretext of helping with a business conundrum to find myself answering questions about pubic hair trimmers or beard oils. I was once pulled aside at a meeting by the CEO of a global corporation to be asked if men could tint their eyebrows. He was worried the colour of his brows didn’t match the rest of his hair.
As if it isn’t exhausting enough being unhappy, or not-quite-happy-enough, with how one looks (which, by the way, isn’t something we choose), there’s also the whole question of whether, as a man, you’re supposed to worry about it. Or for how long, and to what extent that worry can manifest itself before it’s seen as a fault or a weakness. You could argue that the whole terror of being perceived as vain or effeminate is the ultimate vanity.
A few weeks ago I wrote an honest feature for a newspaper about my bumpy relationship with my own looks, and in it I listed some of the treatments I’ve tried over the past decade. Nothing major: no surgery, just small tweaks such as laser treatments to erase sun-damage pigmentation, porcelain veneers on my front teeth, fat freezing, a bit of Profhilo. I was warned not to read the comments that would be posted online underneath the piece but, of course, I was intrigued to see how other men still react to another’s “vanity”.
Some of the comments were predictably harsh. “I’d ask for a refund,” wrote one. “I dread to think what he must have looked like before,” said another. There were dozens of other negative comments, too. The criticism highlighted that for some there’s still such suspicion, even hatred, for those that care about their appearance.
It has always been this way. Before trolls were able to leave anonymous and disparaging remarks online, they had plenty of other outlets to vent their dismay. In the 15th century, according to Professor Aileen Ribeiro’s book, Dress and Morality, the fashion for men to wear tight-fitting leg hose and jackets cropped at the waist led to sumptuary legislation demanding that those under the rank of lord were not to wear “any gown, jacket or coat unless it be of such a length that the same may cover his privy member and buttocks”.
A couple of centuries later and the peacock male was still getting flak, with entire tomes published warning of the dangers of dandyism. John Bulwer, in 1650, railed against “the mad and cruel gallantry, foolish bravery, ridiculous beauty, filthy finenesse and loathsome loveliness of most nations, fashioning and altering their bodies from the mould intended by nature.” Thank the lord he wasn’t around to see reality TV, where it can take weeks to work out which bits of the contestants’ faces and bodies are still from the mould intended by nature.
But, arguably, isn’t it what’s on the inside that really counts, some of you will reasonably ask? And, of course, the answer is yes. But does that mean we can’t play around with the outside, too? If who we are is the person inside, does it truly matter if we indulge in a teeny-tiny bit of external embellishment to help us look our best? When we move into a new house – especially a period one – we’ll peer around and acknowledge that we mustn’t meddle with the original ceiling mouldings and architraves, but we don’t hesitate to discuss updating the walls with a new lick of paint or change of wallpaper.
What’s the harm in having the hairs removed from your ear lobes during an appointment at the Turkish barbers, or buying Rogaine over the counter at Boots? There’s nothing wrong with a Tom Ford Brow Definer Gel to keep your eyebrows in order, and neither should you sniff at the benefits of a tinted moisturiser by War Paint for Men that will stop you looking as if you’ve spent the past decade living in Winterfell.
It shouldn’t be frowned upon if we choose to make our journey to decay a little more comfortable. If you have the desire, why not get the train, rather than a plane, into old age? Ease yourself into looking older rather than bungee jump into it. Keep an eye on unruly pubic hair (69% of men trim theirs; 17% shave it off altogether); invest in a teeth-whitening course at the dentist (it’ll take years off you); check out the serums that can help reduce the puffiness under your eyes or the uneven skin tones on your face. Take note that a well-cut blazer will give your body more structure than a year at the gym, and that navy, not black, is more flattering to older skin.
Don’t let anyone make you change the way you look, but neither let them stop you finessing aspects of yourself that you’re not happy with. If clothes, cosmetics, beauty regimes or treatments make you feel better, enjoy them. Who cares if it makes other men furious? They’ll only end up with unappealing frown lines. And those are far harder to fix.
Vain Glorious: a Shameless Guide for Men Who Want to Look Their Best by Jeremy Langmead and Dr David Jack is out now (£9.99, Short Books). Buy it for £9.29 at guardianbookshop.com