“Stylistic Pluralism”: 1980s to the Turn of the Century

“‘Less is more.’”

—Mies van der Rohe[1]


“‘It’s men’s attitude to fashion that has changed. They’re no longer customers, they’re fashion consumers.’”

— Jean-Paul Gaultier[2]

The sixties and seventies certainly seem to demonstrate the following (as Cally Blackman puts it): “More than anything, the use of clothing to express rebellion paved the way for the acceptance of difference in dress, contributing to the fragmentation of fashion and culture of indifference towards dress that we recognize today.”[3] As a result, by the eighties, men’s fashion (especially formal fashion) was, and still is, fragmented—though I’m not sure that “indifference” accurately describes our modern situation. Instead, approaches to fashion were merely different: from elaborately defined seasonal trends created by designers and swallowed up by a populace who could, to the return of the good old business suit and, with it, a nostalgic yearning for bygone times and their clothing—everything from shawl-collar dinner jackets to waistcoats to vintage cufflinks to pocket watches and more.

Designed Fashion: Giorgio Armani

[caption id="attachment_205" align="aligncenter" width="320"]Giorgio Armani (photo credits to Jan Schroeder) Giorgio Armani (photo credits to Jan Schroeder)[/caption] While Pierre Cardin and others began to bring back and modernize the suit in the mid-seventies in Paris, It was in Milan that the suit’s true modernization occurred.[4] Thanks to Italy’s surplus of cheap wool, it had become known as a “textile paradise”; the “Made in Italy” tag became an absolute must for those designers emerging in the early eighties.[5] Giorgio Armani was perhaps wholly responsible for this Italian conquest, however, just as Cardin had been responsible for a similar takeover in France in the sixties. Armani tended to design with two ideals in mind: first, his customers were “sexy, thickset and broad-bottomed men, thereby shifting the center of masculine anatomical interest from the front to the back”[6] and finding favor among local, young, gay clientele—the designer’s earliest (and most consistently loyal) fans. Second, along the lines of Cardin and others, he “revolutionized tailoring in the 1980s, removing the stiff interlining of suits and making them with fluid fabrics such as linens and ultra-light wools, some previously only used for women’s garments.”[7] Like Cardin (and like the Duke of Windsor during the fashionable pre-WWI era), Armani followed a trend toward lightness, ease, comfort, and high-quality tailoring and fabric. By the mid-eighties, Armani’s designs were extremely popular in the American market, where stylish men considered his “double-breasted, slightly droopy suits (with their long, deep lapels that plunged to the bottom button) to be an indispensable mark of success.” The American enthusiasm for Italian fashion was thanks in part, perhaps, to the wardrobe Armani designed for Richard Gere in American Gigolo[8]—demonstrating once more the intimate connection between film and fashion.   617px-Single-Double-Breasted.svg In any case, Armani had finally succeeded where others before him had failed: in bringing back the suit, and in rejuvenating that original, heavy, shapeless suit into something light, versatile, and comfortable.

The “New Man”

“‘When men follow fashion … women follow men.’”

— Sept 1984 International Mens and Boys Wear Exhibition slogan[9]

Giorgio Armani’s audience of young, stylish gay men is illustrative, perhaps, of a new means of advertising men’s fashion as well as portraying men and their clothing as something inherently fashionable: “In the 1980s, the concept of the ‘new man’ emerged, largely as a response to Gay Liberation and a rash of style magazines, some explicitly homoerotic in their approach to male fashion.”[10] Stylists would work together with photographers, journalists, and male models to create fashion spreads intended to do much more than illustrate clothing trends: rather, these stylish spreads “encapsulated the trend towards a new self-fashioning of the male image, often by confounding stereotypical expectations of gay subcultural dress.”[11] As a result, masculine identity again began to shift—a familiar occurrence, perhaps, after the androgynous movement of the early sixties and even as far back as Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic movement in the late nineteenth century. New fashions, combined with new means of fashion advertising‚ gave men of the eighties—whether gay or straight—the chance to embrace that side of their personality entranced by the pleasures of appearance and grooming, a part of their character that had previously been repressed by “puritanical stereotypes.” “This allowed men to flirt with fashion without encountering disapproval.”[12] Yet again—as in the sixties—this “new man” and his fashion choices were deliberately advertised in a way that would explicitly reject any outright homosexual accusations. For example, the 1984 International Mens and Boys Wear Exhibition protected itself and its heterosexual clientele with the following slogan: “‘When men follow fashion … women follow men.’”[13]

The New Elegance

“‘The simple fact that formalism and conservatism are perforce conjoined, so whether the political mood of the country initiates, capitalizes on, or merely follows in the wake of the more formal style that has been emerging for the past several years—in fashion and home decorating as it is referred to as The New Elegance (with capital letters)—is a moot point. What politics and economics do indicate is that there is a more conservative mood about, and this is reflected in the style of daily living.’”

— Bruce Boyer[14]

The 1980s weren’t all about high-fashion magazines and stylish subcultures, though: it was, after all, an era of ‘stylistic pluralism.’ And in addition to the high-fashion gender- (or, at least, sexuality-bending) designers, the mid-late eighties marked the resuscitation not only of the market, but of its old fashion classic: the business suit. These suits were wholeheartedly adopted by yuppies (“young, upwardly-mobile professionals”) across England, France, and the US. This was a movement known variously as “neoclassicism” or “new conservativism”; it was in some cases associated with American “preppy” (based on earlier “Ivy League”) fashion, and it was always inspired by the new American ideology of “elegance.”[15] After the return of the suit, these “elegant” yuppie gentlemen began to search for and rediscover “new” sartorial treasures: dress shirts with variations on collars and cuffs; exquisite, custom-made shoes; silk, floral-patterned ties and pocket handkerchiefs; antique sets of cufflinks, and more.[16] Gradually, we would begin to see tuxedos and cummerbunds worn at weddings, at parties, and even on the French version of Wheel of Fortune! While waistcoats and wing collars were sold at department stores, suddenly the tailor’s art—especially concerning formal wear—was powerful again: “All establishments that possessed or launched a little custom-made salon nurtured it as incontrovertible proof of their know-how and as a guarantee of the quality of their ready-to-wear lines.”[17]   At the turn of the century, then, everything old seems to have become new again. Now, in the twenty-first century, we can only wait to see how men’s formal wear is maintained and how it is modified—depending on socioeconomic and cultural standards, advertising norms, the relative influence of designers and department stores, and so on. In the Contemporary Style Guides section of this Formal Wear Guide, we’ll explore some brilliant and—well, less so—ways to express your own personal style while staying true to formal wear’s long and storied past. [1] Quoted in Boyer, 102. [2] Quoted in Chenoune, 302. [3] Blackman, 144. [4] Chenoune, 294. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Blackman, 286. [8] Ibid., 216. [9] Quoted in Chenoune, 306. [10] Blackman, 276. [11] Ibid. [12] Chenoune, 306. [13] Ibid. [14] Boyer, 102. [15] Ibid., 313. [16] Chenoune, 314. [17] Ibid., 316.