Mars and Venus, in Clothes: Fashion Is Becoming More Egalitarian

The New York Times' new Men's Style section has a broader trend to report.

On Friday, The New York Times debuted Men’s Style—the first new launch of a print section of the newspaper in 10 years. The insert will appear the first Friday of each month, and will incorporate stories about men's fashions and grooming, profiles, and personal essays. The inaugural edition of Men's Style featured, among others pieces, a cover story on spring suiting ("A New Freedom in Men's Suits"), a profile of the surfer-turned-menswear designer Kelly Slater, a service-y piece on grooming ("How to Scrub Your Body Like a Man"), an essay on gendered communications technology ("Should Grown Men Use Emoji?"), and some light sociology (an exegesis on "the giddy arc of male high jinks"). It is, in other words, pretty much exactly what you'd expect would happen when the paper's iconic Style section gets "Men's" appended to its name.
It is also, it should almost go without saying, extremely easy to mock. The normative emoji! Luxury backpacks! "Tools for the gentleman farmer"! Styles, as an entity, has long been a reminder of the awesome and somewhat awkward mandate of the American newspaper: to be about news, definitely, but also to be "a nation talking to itself." The section, accordingly, has given readers a lot to talk about. It has been a source of both love and mockery; its stories, the Times' public editor wrote last year, "occasionally provide a full day’s worth of hilarity." The section often adopts a breathlessly anthropological attitude toward things like monocles and sundresses and Brooklyn; it also has a reputation for being not just of the Times, but behind them. As Mashable's David Yi put it, "The paper seems more like the out-of-touch older aunt who studies up on 'what the kids are doing' to desperately seem younger than she is."
So you could criticize Men's Style on the grounds of that emoji story (whose premise, one of its own sources put it, "reeks of an old-fashioned and hetero-normative view of the world"); or of its title's implicit suggestion that "Style" is, as a default, a lady thing; or of its overall assumption that style, as a general proposition, is something that can be bought and sold. But here's one reason to love the section: It also carries the default assumption that fashion itself is becoming, quickly, a relatively egalitarian proposition. "The Menaissance," if you will, is upon us.
"Men are spending more on apparel and footwear than ever before," the market research firm Euromonitor International reports—so much so that, globally, menswear is expected to reach $40 billion in sales by 2019. Matters of style—which encompass not just clothing, but also grooming and etiquette and that ephemeral thing we tend of group under the umbrella of "charm"—are quickly becoming more of an equal-opportunity affair.
For the Times, this represents, for one thing, a great business opportunity. "The men's market is very hot right now," Brendan Monaghan, the paper's vice president of luxury, told The Cut. “Last year, we saw a 30-percent increase in men’s related ads in the newspaper, T, and digital combined. The demand for this is huge.”
Added to that is the fact that men, as readers, seem to be just as interested in style stories as women are. More so, even. "Styles has the image of [having] a female readership," Stuart Emmrich, the paper's Style editor, told me. "But, in fact, studies"—the Times' internal readership surveys—"have shown that it's heavily male." The paper, however, has had difficulty capitalizing on that insight. "We knew when we did stories in Styles on men's fashion and grooming, they did quite well, either on Most Emailed or Most-Viewed," Emmrich says. "But we weren't actually attracting the kinds of advertising we thought we would."
A standalone men's section, which has been in the works for about a year, is meant to answer that: to create a dedicated space where (mostly luxury) advertisers like Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Macy's, and Bergdorf Goodman can tout their wares alongside male-focused fashion content. (Men's Style was initially conceived as a 12-to-14-page insert; due to "overwhelming advertiser interest," however, the section ended up with a hefty 32 pages.)
So on the one hand, yes, Men's Style represents a classic journalistic proposition: stories as the covalent bonds between advertisers and consumers. (As Simone Oliver, the Times' growth strategy editor for Lifestyle News, explained it: "The Times’s fashion and style audience is almost evenly split between men and women, so the goal is very much about getting the word out that Styles now has this robust offering of men’s content, building readers’ expectations and habits, and then keeping them hooked.")
But there's also a more complicated cultural proposition at play in a section that reports on the renaissance of gold watches and promises winky tips on "how to scrub your body like a man." It used to be that "fashion," as both a commercial idea and an epistemological one, was, by default, a lady thing. There's the widespread assumption that the Style section (its wedding-related content, in particular) is the "women's sports pages." There's the notion of journalism's "pink ghetto." There's the sitcomic mainstay of the schlubby husband, dragged to the mall by his wife. There's the fact that producers of Project Runway regularly troll their contestants by making them create menswear—a task that the designers, almost uniformly, detest.
Those assumptions and tropes, however, are rapidly changing. Men's fashion—because of a combination of factors that have to do with politics and economics and the fact that polka dots are way more fun to wear than basic black—is ceasing to be a contradiction in terms. "Fashion" itself is quickly shedding its default femininity. Which is evidenced not just by the fact that both skinny jeans and normcorewear are unisex propositions, and not just by the rise of "peacocking" as a term, but also by the fact that men's clothing itself is now being treated as a proposition worthy of cultural attention in the country's paper of record. When it came to menswear, the Times' Emmrich told me, "it felt like there was more energy than there had been in previous years." And "there was a sense that there was more going on than we were actually covering."
That's not to say that things are fully egalitarian, of course. Men's Style is ultimately meant to sell luxury goods to wealthy people. (As The New Republic's Phoebe Maltz Bovy put it, dryly: "Adding style pages aimed at men, as a counterpoint to the ones primarily aimed at women, isn’t going to smash any gender binaries, but those awaiting that revolution might need to look to places that aren’t propping up luxury ads.") The section also revels in an aw-shucks tone that is typical of classic sitcomic Daddery. The editor Jim Windolf, introducing it, referred to Men's Style as "a guide to men, the boneheaded things they do, and cool watches." (It's hard to image any other group being discussed in terms of its "boneheaded" behavior.)
But there's something nice, in the end, about the basic idea—and the basic existence—of a section that takes as a core assumption the fact that men, just like women, care about their appearances. And about being, in their distinct way, stylish. The Menaissance is upon us; with one reminder being the fact that "men's style," as a term, is quickly becoming redundant.