Back at the end of the eighteenth century, as England and France were hit by the double whammy of the Franco-British war and the French Revolution, a band of expensively dressed, happily idle men served as the founders of a movement that came to be known as dandyism. As slightly garbled historical fable has it, swathes of wealthy men under the influence of proto-celebrity-cum-uber dandy Beau Brummel began to dress in a pointedly elaborate and tailored way, with the aim of distinguishing themselves from the disenfranchised poor and the revolutionary sans culottes, who wore trousers rather than the silk knee breeches favoured by the aristocracy. Dandies, and their lifestyle are all too often romanticized by Baudelaire toting nostalgists in mothy vintage suits, but in actual fact, what they stood for was a set of values that should by today’s standards seem pretty nasty: an individual pursuit of pleasure is all well and good, but a sartorial statement of anti-egalitarianism and self indulgence is a little bit boorish to say the least. However, despite their stinking attitudes, and the fact they have paved the way for deluded present day boys to think waistcoats look clever, eighteenth century dandies did serve as an early example of men dressing in a particular way, beyond the norms of their larger community, to show allegiance to a certain lifestyle and set of ideals. They were, to an extent, adopting what could be seen as an early example of a subversive fashion uniform, giving rise to the phenomenon of men using fashion as a means to pledge loyalty to their chosen groups, which is something that continued well into the second half of the twenty-first century.
Entire encyclopedias have already been written on the history of men’s dress pre 1950, so let's skip 150 years to get to the stuff relevant to now. If you take into account the whole spectrum of style from the 1950s onwards, including Mod, Skinhead, Punk, Casual, Goth, New Romantic, 'Madchester' loving baggy boy and full-on Raver, it is clear that for a hefty chunk of recent history, the prevailing trends in men’s fashion were defined by one of two great Pop Cultural forces: music and sport. Furthermore, like the dandies, the sartorial rules that each style clique followed generally accompanied a set of moral rules or social codes or even political ideologies that their members stuck to: the well documented bastardisation of the Skinhead style by the extreme right wing is a good example, as is the (albeit ecstasy induced) all embracing, positive attitude of the early nineties Rave movement. The styles associated with each movement may well have come out of a distillation of all manner of contributing cultural factors, but the overwhelming order was always music/sport first, fashion second.
However, over the last ten years, mainstream pop culture and its male devotees, have found themselves affected by a new set of social conditions involving communications technology and economic stability that are too complicated and boring to go into here. The knock on effect has been a kind of pop-cultural meltdown: the distinction between celebrity and lay person has vanished, with Jade Goody making herself a poster girl for the masses; the distinction at the most visible end of the scale between 'real' music and 'mainstream' music has completely disappeared (the marketing machine behind the Arctic Monkeys is as big as the one that was behind Girls Aloud); and the influence of sportswear as a template for men’s fashion has become so standard that it has stabilised, making the clothes worn by celebrity footballers (and their wives) off the pitch far more influential than the ones they wear during the game. What this means for fashion is that the idea of a nationwide or even region-wide clique of men dressing according to their taste in music or their sporting allegiance, and adhering to the values implicit to that dress code, has all but died. There are of course, exceptions to the new rule, but they tend to be either very young indeed (witness the swathes of 'emos' that you find in mid-size northern towns), or of specific minority interest (country and western fanatics), or as is increasingly the case these days, they have an explicit cross over into fashion-proper: it’s not unusual to see Pharrell Williams or Kanye West in the front row of a Louis Vuitton show.
This decline has been paralleled by a rise in interest in fashion for fashion’s sake. Even in this rocky economic climate, department stores are bulging with more menswear than ever, the term “metrosexual” adopted into common parlance, and all but the most tits-n-tans based men’s magazines are touting “exclusive” designer clothes. So men find themselves faced with a kind of Pop Cultural buffet, where they have absolute freedom of choice, and where the statements made by the records and sports tickets they buy can be entirely separate from the statements their clothes make. This means that men are now free to choose their fashion statements at will, which means to make it as a designer, you have to be bang on the money.
The very thing that makes fashion a constantly buoyant market is the fact that everybody has to wear clothes. Unfortunately, in democratic countries, it is also the thing that makes it such a crowded and difficult one: there is so much choice, and people are so free to make whatsoever statement they fancy with their clothes, that in order to garner any kind of widespread critical or commercial success, fashion designers need to succinctly tap into the exact statements people want to make. Some of those statements might be easy to cater for: some men want their wardrobes to say 'I’m Mr. Average;' others just want them to say 'I’m rich.'
Other statements or groups of statements are far harder to pin down. In the established men’s market, the likes of Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein managed to nail something in the eighties, their suits literally changed the shapes of men to make them look more manly, and therefore (according to primitive stereotype) more attractive and successful. The new establishment of men’s designers, Tom Ford, Raf Simons, and now Lucas Ossendrijver at Lanvin have all, in their own far more subtle ways and with their own sets of values done the same thing brilliantly. Tom Ford, has perfected the art of distilling sex and success into an item of clothing, while the fashionably discontented have made Raf Simons’ clothes their badge of honour, the symbol by which they can spot a like mind, just as the early eighties Casuals had the C.P company logo as theirs. However, while C.P was adopted by a group of men who had something very specific in common, the Raf Simons men or the Tom Ford men are united by far less concrete ideas. Success, discontentment, intelligence, and aspiration are all somewhat more difficult to capture than 'football,' or 'rock.'
The biggest challenge of all is that faced by new menswear designers as they very publicly cut their teeth. Against all odds hordes of new designers pop onto the scene every season, all trying to make a permanent mark. Most of them fizzle out after a few seasons, falling off the tightrope of the experimental into the murky waters of the downright stupid. The ones that last, or at least the ones that deserve attention, are the ones that make clothes that set a real ideal for, real men to aspire to, without compromising on innovation. Aitor Throup does this, by making work that is hugely tied up in concept and display, but when it comes to the crunch breaks down into a kind of armored, urban uniform, that is manly and appealing. Carri Munden does it with Cassette Playa in an entirely different way, by making clothes that, in her own words 'men in the real world actually wear.' Sure, Cassette Playa appeals to a few East London fashion obsessives who still want to pile on the neon and stand out in the Joiners Arms, but it also appeals to an aspirational, urban customer base, who want to make a statement about where they want to be with how they dress. One of Carri’s proudest moments, much to the horror of her stockists, was when Ghanaian kids from the outskirts of Paris started shoplifting her clothes from the Parisian wing of Kokon to Zai.
The reasons these two designer’s deserve respect has sod all to do with trends or taste- the work of Aitor Throup has very little in common aesthetically speaking with that of Cassette Playa, and the men they have made into their customers could not be more different. What they do have in common though, is that they have managed to identify a set of values that modern men-in whatever guise they may take- aspire to, and have managed to make clothes that communicate them. That’s not to say that all well dressed men are self aware and worthy-nor that the dandy idea of dressing as a form of vicious snobbery has completely died out: the vulgar and literal dandy resurgence that plagued London’s clubs a few years ago more than proved that a caddish halfwit in a fashionable suit is a caddish halfwit none-the-less. But maybe it goes to show that there is a future for adventurous fashion for real men, who never need to wear a suit.