We’re often told that masculinity needs to be redefined, but what does that mean? And what might a new version of manhood look like? We’re looking at images of men from the last 75 years, both public and personal, and asking what they might reveal about blokes now and in the future…
#1 Wear a dress: David Beckham in France, 1998
There is an unofficial rule that any discussion of modern masculinity in Britain must feature David Beckham, and another that any discussion of David Beckham must feature The Sarong.
Beckham was photographed wearing the Gaultier sarong on a night out with Victoria in France in the summer of 1998. He was there with the England squad for the World Cup, which made the story sufficiently newsworthy for the front page of The Sun. Here was one of English football’s great hopes going out IN A SKIRT! What would Alf Ramsey have said?
To be fair the story was treated less as an attack than as an episode in the burgeoning Posh-and-Becks media soap opera. Later in the 2000s, when the media picked up on Mark Simpson’s Metrosexuals, and Beckham became the country’s leading male trend-setter, The Sarong was written about (http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/m/men-in-skirts/) as if it marked a shift from an old-fashioned, industrial-era masculinity to a modern, more open and narcissistic version. Of course you still don’t see many men in skirt or sarongs, unless it’s for ever-more-popular “fancy dress” occasions.
#2 Accessorise: Michael Douglas in Wall Street
Here’s Michael Douglas in 1987 in Wall Street. Gordon Gecko is a justifiably famous character with some great lines, “lunch is for wimps”, “greed is good” and so on. But he’s also a great reminder of how men use physical props to define their manliness. Cars and guns are all too obvious symbols. In Wall Street, it’s the mobile phone that plays a surprisingly prominent role as a signifier of Gordon’s voracious desire for power and dominance. Surprising because over time the mobile phone has largely lost its phallic significance and become a unisex tool of metropolitan sophistication. In Gordon’s hands though it is nothing less than a totem of raw power. Mere mortals, see him wield that Motorola DynaTac 8000 and quake in fear.
#3 Go Your Own Way: Uncle John, South Yorkshire
This is my uncle John, photographed at home in Highgate, South Yorkshire c 1980. You will notice that he has what would now be called a “strong look”; this has been true of him since he learned from his elder brothers to appreciate pre-army Elvis Presley in the late 1950s, and he cuts a pretty smart dash today, in his Sixties. Some people see fashion as superficial, but it’s always clear that for John it was always bound up with the right music and changing attitudes, looking forwards and not backwards. For a working-class man who came of age politically in the Sixites and Seventies, that had a sort of political significance; at root, it was to do with optimism. When he adopted a new way with colour, or a different silhouette, it was of course partly just about keeping up, but it was also about staying true to the feelings of excitement and liberation you first felt when Elvis demonstrated the power of sensual self-expression in the common tongue. Critics often say men’s clothing is about detail, but those details can say a lot. RB
When the writer Mark Simpson coined the term “spornosexual” earlier this year, he was thinking in part of the influence of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
The spornosexual male, heavily groomed and unafraid of narcissim, takes his cues from the highly-buffed and depilated looks of men in porn, reality TV shows and sport. While the cast of The Only Way Is Essex would give him a run for his considerable money, Ronaldo is out in front as role model; his body, revealed in the ads for his underwear range last year, was unlike anything most of us had ever seen in the mainstream media – so defined and hairless that it made David Beckham’s body in his Armani ads look flabby by comparison. The tarty blokes you see out on the high street on Saturday nights, bull-necked, fitted shirts tight on the bicep, had their official hero; one unisex hair-removal salon in London named the leg wax after him in tribute. RB
# 5: Be wary of “traditional roles”: four generations of a family
This picture, taken in 1980, shows four generations of one branch of my family: clockwise from top right, Gary Hollingworth, then 24; Gary’s father Roy, 47; Scott, Gary’s son, 4; and Harry Roy’s father, 69. All three of the elder men had worked as miners in the same South Yorkshire pits, and one thing that has always interested me is that both Harry and Roy were pretty uninterested in the idea of close “traditional communities”, seeking rather a kind of escape, either physically or in the imagintion. Of course they could not imagine the plentiful, if dangerous work, the pits provided ever going away. Gary was the one who had to confront that possibility, striking against closures in the 1980s and developing a reverence for the past that he will admit is in some ways at odds with the realities. Part of that reverence is for the stability of the old family model, and I sometimes wonder if this sort of nostalgia fed into those very exaggerated, hard, virile images of masculinity we used to see in the 1970s and 1980s; when Gary was a teenager, mining was literally being advertised as a “real man’s job”. Sociologists have suggested that the skinhead subculture, with its look that almost caricatured traditional working-class clothing of the 1920s and 1930s (big boots, braces, shorn hair) was a nostalgic throwback; could similar ideas have been working their way through those weird ads for aftershave and cars? RB
#6: Stay sharp: Malcolm X in Africa
In 1964, Malcolm X made a tour across Africa visiting many of the countries vying for independence against colonial rule. This photo shows him in Ghana, which had won self-rule from the Britain Empire in 1957. As it happens, the man sitting next to him is my dad, who was involved in Ghanaian independence movement politics.
One of the things I like about this image is how similar the style of both men is: dark suits, thin ties, horn-rimmed glasses, considered facial hair. To some extent that’s just the early Sixties for you when dressing up was de rigeur. But Ghana was hardly an epicentre of fashion and the heat and, at times, arduous conditions on his ten-country tour must have been gruelling for Malcolm. Yet both of them still look sharp. And it’s hard not to see a kind of politics in their appearance. For centuries, the ruling powers in colonial Africa and pre-Civil Rights America had looked at black men as uncivilised, bestial, barely human. Malcolm and my dad, I think, are consciously asserting a resistant notion of black masculinity as something assertive, polished, and cosmopolitan. In this photo clothes really do make the man. EE
# 7: Get in touch with your feminine side: Harry “Juggler” Hollingworth as Old Mother Riley
I’ve always thought masculinity was a more fluid and unpredictable thing than most people seem to think, and I suppose that’s because of my grandfather, Harry “Juggler” Hollingworth. He was a coal miner in South Yorkshire, in some ways as conventional masculine as it got. However, he also had an extra, part-time career as a turn in working men’s clubs, and as part of his act he a) dressed up as Old Mother Riley, and b) wore a dress stuffed with tin lunch boxes, which he played liked drums. He was also pretty willing to dress up for plays and pantomimes (this picture here shows him, right, in Aladdin in 1948). He didn’t make a big deal of this – certainly no one in the family ever referred to it as “drag” – and mostly regarded it as a way of making money. But like men in fancy dress at sporting events today, his pictures remind me of one important thing about masculinity; what ever may be, it’s usually not quite what it appears on the surface. RB
# 8: There’s strength in vulnerability – Gazza, Italia ’90
Gazza’s tears at Italia ’90 turned him into a national hero. In the years since, the sight of him succumbing to his demons has proved painful to watch. But that just makes that moment in Turin all more iconic. Famously, of course, Gazza was said to be crying out of self-pity at potentially missing the a place in the World Cup finals after receiving a yellow card. But with hindsight, it’s hard to know if that really matters. What he made visible in that moment is that the truth of manhood is that tears are always just below the surface for every man. Tears of pain or pride or sorrow. Men hold back their emotions because they think they should. Because they subscribe to a false god of stoicism. Only to discover that when they do express the feelings within them the world doesn’t end. Quite the opposite in fact. They realise that vulnerability can be its own kind of strength. EE