For starters, this post title is a reference to a brief scene in Scary Movie—which I a) admittedly have never seen and b) admittedly never plan to see—where Shawn Wayans asks his pal whether his tank top makes him “look gay.” And it also comes from a brief internet meme photo of a model sporting a hoodie emblazoned with a phallus. Homophobic bros around the interweb guffawed aloud on message boards, simultaneously airing their disgust at the men would dare to so blatantly broadcast their sexuality. Yet it isn’t shirts and outwear that fellas might want to fret over so much as the style of their jeans. As with fashion choices in general, women’s blue jean options are wide open in contrast. We rarely have to think twice about the messaging subliminally stitched into our favorite denim; just avoid the dreaded “mom jeans,” and you’re good to go. Yes, the hegemonic male uniform of jeans and shirt is far more pared down than the extensive female dress code but those pants, I’d argue, are far more fraught with gendered messages. Not to kowtow to every denim manufacturer out there, but in a way, the jeans “make the man” in a way no other article of clothing does.
We pay a curious amount of attention to blue jeans specifically, a staple wardrobe item in virtually any wardrobe, both young and old. Despite Lee Jeans proclaiming in 2010 that “real men” suffer from “shop-a-phobia” and couldn’t give a hoot about finding the perfect pair, the type of jeans a man slips on nevertheless seems to say a lot about how he projects his masculinity and sexuality (which is probably the culprit of the bogus shop-a-phobia). And who are these “real men,” anyway? Are they the ones outfitted in Garth Brooks-y cowboy bootcut Wranglers or skin-tight indie rock frontman fare? Or are they one who prefer the saggy and baggy, or distressed and bedazzled? So many choices, so many (unnecessary?) implications about what started as a practical, durable pant for California gold miners. Denim came to my mind while pondering heteronormative clothing taboos. Why, for instance, do we associate shorter and tighter (or merely more tailored) with gay closets and looser and longer with straight ones?
Ever since the Great Masculine Renunciation in the mid-1800s that decried the sartorial flourishes of Beau Brummell and his dandy followers, Western culture has adhered more strictly to heteronormative male dress code and hygiene habits. Diverging from those guidelines, a natural instinct, is an act of rebellion, as Paula A. Baxter, historical menswear curator explains in The Branded Male: “A universal truth emerged early on. Young men are quick to adopt flashy, often sexually provocative garments as a means of advertising their virility.” In The Male Body Susan Bordo discusses how demin became a billboard of sorts for male sexuality with Marlon Brando’s outfit in A Streetcar Named Desire. His tight white t-shirt and groin-hugging jeans “became the style for sexual macho in many gay male circles and a required uniform for many would-be teen rebels.”
Fast forward to Calvin Klein in the mid-’70s, and the innuendo enters more mainstream male fashion. A biography on the iconic designer says: “[Calvin Klein] cut the rise, or area from the waistband to under the groin, much shorter to accentuate the crotch and pull the seam up between the buttocks, giving the behind more shape and prominence. The result was instant sex appeal…” Research from the Global Denim Project echoes this shift from denim as a codifying uniform to more of a sexual statement:
When looking at males it was clear that sexual orientation interacted potently with jeans practices. While heterosexual males were concerned mostly with “comfort”, using jeans to articulate traditional masculine qualities such as bulk or strength, among homosexual males we found much concern for the seductive qualities of jeans, especially very tight jeans that emphasise the body, the back in particular.
This isn’t to delineate between so-called “gay” and “straight” jeans, but to undrescore how culture has drawn correlations between clothing fit and style and male sexuality. And nothing riles up insecurities and homophobic fears more than when those lines become blurred. Oh, yes, I’m talking about the vitriol men wearing skinny jeans have attracted and the nonsense that “real men” don’t wear them. Again, who are these bona fide menfolk? And more importantly, how and why does denim of all things determine it?