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Modern Man's Style Evolution by Steve Dow - 2004

Steve Dow
 Steve Dow, Journalist
Modern man's style evolution
Michael Wood is a successful, married man – a project manager with a construction company. Looking good is more important to him now than ever before. He has long had some idea about how to dress but other guys always seemed to have an edge. “We would go to a party or to a barbecue and I’d see a guy who looked really smart,” he says. “And there I would be in my Country Road gear, looking a bit conservative.”

It’s not as though Wood couldn’t have simply blended into the crowd. Australian men still generally prefer to conform rather than stand out. But the grooming genie seems to be increasingly charming ordinary blokes, even if they are not quite aware of the spell. “I found shopping a chore,” says the tall, good-looking Wood. “I would go into shops and not know what I was doing. You can’t trust the sales assistants; they’ll tell you everything
looks good.”

But why should Michael Wood care about how he dresses? Why should it have occurred to him, at age 45, to hire a stylist – independent of his wife and teenage daughters – to cast a critical gaze over his wardrobe? In his mid-20s, for instance, he couldn’t have given a hoot. The Sydneysider remembers going to the Melbourne Cup in a T-shirt and footy shorts. “Now, I just wouldn’t dream of doing that.”

It’s Friday evening in a pub near his work and Wood lifts his beer and waxes lyrical about TV sensation Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. “I reckon it’s great,” he says. “I like watching them turn someone who looks ordinary into someone who looks fantastic.”

When he hired Sarah Bevis, a stylist and personal shopper who helped him buy an edgy Morrissey suit, casual trousers cut lower than usual and black pointy shoes, could it have been like having his own Carson Kressley, Queer Eye’s blond fashion coach? It seems so. “I wanted her to stretch the limits a bit,” he says.

The truth is Australian men are becoming better versed in the elements of style. Such a concept might have once seemed inconceivable for the average bloke, whose interest lay more in upgrading his car or career than his frayed collar. But in the past two years, the makeover rumble has turned into a roar. The ordinary guy has been proclaimed by marketers as a metrosexual and prodded into the change room under the gaze of expert
fashionistas. He is waxed, spruced and polished and his mates are nodding in approval. White-collar men, at least, no longer get ribbed in the pub by their peers about a new shirt and a haircut.

Riding the wave, magazine publishers are suddenly jostling for position. Ribald titles such as FHM and Ralph were joined on the newsstands in 2003 by upmarket publications Men’s Style Australia and a revived GQ Australia,
which fell flat five years ago because of a lack of brand recognition. Now, to the delight of frustrated female partners everywhere, more Australian men are open to style messages.

GQ Australia publisher Grant Pearce says the current influences on Australian men began more than 20 years ago when the pop video came into its own, replete with a bevy of stylists. When Pearce, 38, was a teenager in the late 70s, it was considered daggy to look fashionable. Now, it’s virtually standard for teenage boys. Their influences are musicians who are given stylists within five minutes of becoming stars. For straight men, the main influence is their female partner. “It’s now so important to have the right-looking guy, which puts pressure on guys to look the best they can, otherwise they’re left behind,” says Pearce. “Women don’t think it’s cool to be with a guy who is poorly dressed, has bad hair and looks like a scuzz.”

Pearce says the growth of the fitness industry has also played a part in men’s growing style consciousness. “Sure, it’s a gay thing to be buffed but straight guys increasingly want to look good, too,” he says. “When you’re working that hard to make yourself look good from a body perspective, you want the right clothes to illustrate that as well.”

Then there are the sporting stars who have embraced style, such as swimmer Ian Thorpe and English soccer star David Beckham. If it’s OK for a bloke who can kick with the best of them, it’s OK for your average Australian male, right?

It was this sport-focused culture that designer Wayne Cooper noticed when he moved to Australia from Britain in 1986. And he believes it’s still true today. “I don’t think there’s enough free thinking in Australia yet,” he says. “You don’t have enough culture here.” Fashion design in Europe is way ahead because of the influences of a thriving music and art scene, he says. But in Australia, says Cooper, “the culture is run by squares like [John] Howard”, leaving a culture that is “run by sport”.

Perhaps this is why when fashionably dressed men emerge from sport, straight men take notice. Australian men still fear that fashion equals femininity, says Cooper. “I think a lot of women would like to see their man dress better,” he says. “You don’t have to look camp to be groovy.” Cooper says about 70 per cent of his men’s clothing is sold to straight guys, although it is an inner-city, fashion-conscious type of straight man. After all, hesays, you don’t often see a bunch of builders dressed flamboyantly with their mates in the pub, do you?

But white-collar straight guys are definitely undergoing a sea change and marketers know it. Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer with advertising multinational Euro RSCG Worldwide, said recently on United States television that a metrosexual was a “man with money and an interest in fashion and beauty who lives within easy reach of a city”.

What has been belatedly acknowledged, however, by the likes of The New York Times, is that the term metrosexual was first used in print by an English writer, Mark Simpson, in 1994. He was lampooning the fashion industry’s attempt to extract marketing dollars out of modern men and has since called the term “memorably silly”.

Gay men, insisted Simpson, were the early prototype for metrosexuality but straight men were adopting their “neurotic strategies” to survive modern life and advance in an “increasingly visual, aestheticised world where women were not only more discriminating but also more likely to be your boss”.

Grant Pearce hates the term metrosexual despite the fact he put Beckham – its greatest exponent – on GQ Australia’s December cover. “It’s nothing to do with sexuality so I don’t think there should be any emphasis on anything sexual.”

A world in which guys aim to look good without inferring something about their sexual orientation? When the only differences are matters of climate – more layers in Melbourne, a more surfy look in Sydney?

Perhaps that’s possible. At the same time as Mark Simpson coined the term metrosexual, Ina Clow opened her grooming salon Ciao Bella in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. At first, straight men entering the salon would issue the apologia: “You know, I’m not gay.” Now, straight men outnumber gay men in the salon and they no longer feel the need to explain.

Increasingly, they come in for genital-hair waxing to surprise their girlfriends. They sometimes surprise themselves: Clow says the first time around, the process of extracting hair from the testicles can be like “pulling barbed wire out of the skin”. It’s not for the squeamish – there can be blood.

Why the trend? Clow says Australian men are influenced by celebrities and don’t like “excess” body hair as much as they once did. Some men now have body piercings – nipple and genital, typically – and like to show them off without surrounding hair, “exposing themselves to the best possibilities” on dates. Quite.

Little surprise then that Queer Eye For The Straight Guy has hit a nerve. But it’s impacting on the male psyche even more than predicted. In November, Seven and Nine threw two of their blokiest options against Queer Eye’s penultimate show of the year. Despite that, 41.3 per cent of male TV viewers that night aged 16 to 39 watched Queer Eye, compared to 36.5 per cent for the film Dude, Where’s My Car? while just 22.2 per cent turned on sporty Eddie McGuire and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And the first episode of Queer Eye this year attracted a phenomenal 1.9 million viewers in mainland capital cities, beating the season return episode of Friends. Tim Clucas, Network Ten’s head of development, entertainment and acquisition who is in charge of the forthcoming Australian version of the show, likens Queer Eye to the electronic equivalent of Cosmopolitan magazine – purchased by a woman but a “guilty pleasure” for husbands or boyfriends.

Metrosexuality, says Clucas, “sounds to me like the wheels of a bandwagon passing through town”. But Queer Eye, he says, is about more than the Zeitgeist: many women are frustrated with their partners. So why would straight guys listen to the flamboyant Carson instead of their girlfriends?

“I suspect that most relationships aren’t strong enough to have one side telling the other half everything they’re doing wrong without copping it back.” Some straight men, he says, are like “ocean liners at sea. They can take a long time to shift the boat off course”.

According to stylist Sarah Bevis, a quarter of her clients are male and all are straight. Bevis says she loves seeing the “pure pleasure” when a man such as client Michael Wood discovers how certain colours can suit him or that a particular style of pants is more flattering.

Sometimes Bevis is employed by men who have gone through a relationship bust-up and are seeking a new partner. Perhaps a mate has just scored a gorgeous new girlfriend and they want to do the same.

In many cases, they have partners who have sent them along. Her graduates often stand with their chest out and chin up after she helps them find clothes that highlight their best features – broad shoulders, say, or great legs and backside.

And post-styling? She smiles. “They glow.”

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Written Content :  ©Steve Dow 2001-2005 Photograph:  Simon O'Dwyer  
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