Men of all sexual orientations enjoy gazing at the male body – take a look at any number of Hollywood action films, men’s fitness magazine covers, or underwear packaging to see that this is inarguably the case. The fashion industry knows this. They rely on images of idealised masculine forms in order to sell their menswear lines. Their campaign images routinely imagine heightened homosocial worlds of male bonding. But this homoeroticism has its own type of latent homophobia. Homosexuality within these images is relentlessly controlled and denied, even whilst it is overtly insinuated. What results is a confusing and shameful perspective on male homosexuality, in one of the few industries where its image is promoted in the relative mainstream.
The fashion industry’s creation of the metrosexual, dreamt up in a boardroom sometime in the 90s in order to expand out of gay markets, required imagery that sold an unattainable hyper-masculinity to its new “straight” audience. Hence campaigns presenting homoeroticism that denies its homosexuality. And so Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name” remains silent.
Take a look at recent campaigns. Dolce and Ganbana, the design duo who recently declared that “the only family is the traditional one,” stock their menswear imagery with deeply suggestive tableaux of Sicilian machismo and male bonding. But the extent to which these images acknowledge their homosexual subtext is limited to the models’ regard of the viewer. In art theory, the traditional relationship of painter and subject is that women are looked at, whilst men do the looking. But we know that these campaigns are designed to sell to and be seen by men. Thus the masculine subjects are sneakily subject to a homosexual male gaze. So despite these images being produced by a fashion house run by two gay men, homosexuality is only hinted at, toyed with, but ultimately denied. It remains shameful.
But the fashion world marches on with its own vision of progress. Commentators have pointed towards the recent queering of gender as a sign of fashion taking a more flexible approach to notions of masculinity. Designers like Dries Van Noten, JW Anderson, and most recently, Gucci’s groundbreaking Autumn/Winter 2015 Menswear Collection have all shown off determinedly androgynous conceptions of gender. But these are queering gender, not the body, and beyond the underground of Fashion Weeks, collections and markets remain divided into mens and womenswear. And so the male market must be maintained, ensuring a continuing parade of deified male physiques and images of hyper-masculinity in which there is no room for homosexuality.
This despite the male fashion industry being largely homosexual in production and reception, which makes these campaigns all the more frustrating. They acknowledge their audience, but enforce narratives of denial and unfulfilment which have plagued gay culture for decades. And there’s a wealth of evidence that these images of deliberately unattainable masculine forms affect a gay audience most acutely. Of men who suffer from eating disorders, 42% identify as gay, whilst homosexual men are twelve times more likely to report binging and purging cycles than their heterosexual counterparts.
Obviously, looking for responsible imagery from an industry that sells unattainable fantasies would be misguided. Yet I believe it’s important to be aware of the hidden messages these fantastical images encourage you to receive and internalise day in and day out.