How do you make men look sexy?
This week’s Project Runway challenge: Make performance wear for the Thunder From Down Under male stripper group. It was a difficult challenge for a lot of reasons: making men’s wear is always hard on designers who mostly make women’s wear, what with the different body shapes and all. Add to that the fact that they had to make, not just men’s wear, but men’s wear that was both stretchy enough and durable enough for vigorous stage performance… while still having enough structure to not look like pajamas. Add to that the fact that the outfits weren’t just dance wear, but stripper wear, and they had to tear away easily and completely at a moment’s notice. Add to that the fact that the men they were making clothes for had giant muscled beefcake bodies, with huge chests and arms: bodies that were far from ordinary, and that are unusually hard to fit.
But then, in addition to all that, add this challenge:
How do you make men look sexy?
Specifically, how do you make men look sexy in a heterosexual context? (As far as I’m aware, Thunder From Down Under aim their performances primarily at women.)
In a sexual culture where women are assumed to be the objects of desire and men are assumed to be the subjects, where women are expected to be looked at and men are expected to do the looking, it’s very difficult to make men look blatantly sexy. In a heterosexual context, anyway. It’s one of the main reasons that men’s wear is so often such a snoozefest. The very act of trying to look sexy, the very act of trying to make one’s body and one’s self look sexually desirable, is seen as a feminine act. (Or a gay act. More on that in a sec.) It’s a weird double bind/ balancing act: straight men are supposed to look good, or not look like slobs anyway, but they’re not supposed to look like they’re trying, or like they care.
There are, as I said in my original piece on men’s wear, some exceptions to this: the historical costuming community, the kink community, some others. And gay men have largely untied this knot and re-woven it into a sexual culture where everyone gets to be both gazer and gazee, mutual objects and subjects, in turn or simultaneously. (A somewhat problematic sexual culture, if my gay male friends are to be believed, in which a high premium is often placed on fitting into one of a handful of ideals of male sexuality and attractiveness, many of which are hyper-masculine in their own way — but still, one in which men can openly express their sexuality and their desire to be desirable, without it being seen as undercutting their masculinity.)
But the very fact that gay male culture has embraced the conscious display of male sexuality and created a space for it makes it harder for men to do in a heterosexual context. Given the homophobia of our culture, anyway. Looking sexy and trying to make your body look sexually desirable is seen as something that either women do or that gay men do — and since our culture is both so sexist and so homophobic, straight men are strongly discouraged from doing anything that would make them seem gay, or feminine, or both. I find it very telling that the usual route for male strippers in a heterosexual context is to go hyper-masculine: super beefcakey, huge muscled chests, huge muscled biceps, often in costumes that represent iconically male roles, from construction workers to cowboys to suits and ties. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this hyper-masculinity is done to offset the automatic feminization that comes in our culture with sexual display. (Not consciously, I don’t think, but still.)
So of all the challenges this season, this should absolutely not have been a one-day challenge. The designers had to make clothing for unfamiliar bodies — unfamiliar because of gender, and unfamiliar because of huge muscled beefcake-ness. They had to make said clothing work as stretchy and durable stagewear. They had to make said clothing with a design spec that they almost certainly had never dealt with before — namely, making the clothes tear away in a second. And apart from all these technical challenges, they had to face a serious conceptual challenge: making men look conventionally sexy in a conventionally heterosexual context, displaying their sexuality without undercutting their masculinity, maintaining their masculinity without being a bore.
In this, of all challenges, the designers should have had an extra day. Nobody — not the judges, not the producers, nobody — should have been surprised that this week was such a universally miserable and laughable fail-fest.
I’m not going to do a design- by- design analysis of this week’s looks. Everything sucked this week. Everyone admitted that everything sucked. It all sucked in the same way: it was all ill-fitting, and it was all tedious. Tedious, tedious, tedious. They totally went with “suits, suits, and more suits” — and while I like a nice suit as much as anyone, what typically distinguishes a good suit from a bad or boring one is fine details, and it’s very tricky to make a suit read from a distance as innovative or distinctive without it reading as bizarre. Also, one of the things that makes a nice suit work is structure, and it’s very hard to do structure in tear-away dance wear. And it’s pretty much impossible to make a good suit in a day. Michelle’s vesty thing with the diagonal zipper was the one piece on the runway that was vaguely interesting, and even that was weird, with iffy fit and way the hell too much going on at once. (I’m kind of sorry Michelle’s team didn’t go with her original concept, which was the only one with a shred of imagination: if you’re going to go with a “sexy office” trope, put some variety into it, with a suit, a delivery man, and a bike messenger. It might have wound up looking a little Village People, but it couldn’t possibly have been worse than what they wound up with.)
We could get into a debate about whether the “clothes that looked marginally more shitty but did at least tear away pretty well” team was more deserving of a loss than the “clothes that looked marginally less shitty but failed to tear off, which is the one thing they were supposed to accomplish, and which looked sadly embarrassing in performance, like a comedy parody of a bad male strip show” team. But I kind of don’t care. It all sucked. And it wasn’t the designers’ fault. This was totally the producers’ fault. This was an unreasonable expectation, and it was no surprise that the designers fell so far short.
But there was one thing that happened this week that was very much the designers’ fault:
The designers’ behavior towards their clients this week was totally, grossly, 100% inappropriate.
People — you are professionals. You do not flirt with your clients. You do not sexualize your clients. You do not fall into hysterical teenaged giggle-fits about the hunkiness of your clients, or about their unconventional profession. Especially not in a professional relationship that is so physically intimate. Your clients have to allow you a certain amount of access to their bodies in order to work with you. It is seriously invasive and inappropriate to take advantage of that access in a sexual way. Strippers are not there to provide sexual entertainment on demand to the entire world: they are there to provide sexual entertainment, in specified settings which they control, to their customers. If you’re designing stagewear for them, you are not their customer. They are yours. And they have a right to expect professionalism from the people providing services for them: whether that’s makeup artists, lighting technicians, box-office staff, or costume designers.
And here’s how this is related to this week’s theme.
Straight male designers are expected to behave professionally around naked and near-naked female models. If straight male designers on Project Runway behaved around female models or clients the way the straight female and gay male designers behaved this week around the male strippers, there would be outrage. But part of our culture’s myth of masculinity is that men are supposed to always be happy with sexual attention, at all times, from anyone (or at least, from any reasonably attractive person of the appropriate gender). They’re not supposed to consciously dress to draw that attention — but they’re supposed to welcome it, and be receptive to it. Always. So when men get hit on or otherwise sexualized in a professional setting — especially by women — it’s not seen as invasive. It’s not seen as disrespectful of boundaries. It’s seen as funny and cute.
Fuck that. That attitude doesn’t just perpetuate the myth of masculinity in generally screwed-up ways. That attitude specifically makes people dismissive of male victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Fuck that noise. And shame on you, Project Runway designers, for participating in it and contributing to it.