The S/S 21 menswear shows have come to a close, the Barbican's landmark Masculinities exhibition has re-opened and the world is rousing from an emotionally trying lockdown. As such, conversations surrounding masculinity and mental health have peaked, posing the question: what does masculinity look like today?
The modern social phenomenon of the softboi describes a certain type of young man who, on the surface, feels separate from others, and seeks solace in artistic experience, but also may use emotional manipulation to wheedle their way into women's hearts. Whilst the term softboi has been coined fairly recently, it isn’t merely a contemporary trend. The forlorn, artistic and solitary male character has, in fact, been around for centuries. Deeply embedded in popular legend and fiction, the historical precursor for the softboi usually comes in the form of a pining young man with an air of tragedy, from Cupid, who pierced himself with his own arrow, falling hopelessly in love with the mortal Psyche; to Tristan who died from his sorrow after believing lover Iseult dead, his very name originating from the Latin ‘tristitia’, meaning sadness. Need I even point out Hamlet or Romeo? What about Goethe’s semi-autobiographical Werther, that sensitive young artist who poured his heart out in impassioned letters? Or Hardy’s love-sick Angel Clare, the romantic idealist with his head in the clouds until his illusion is shattered. More recently, we’ve had the likes of Hugh Grant’s bookish William in Notting Hill and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's greeting-card writer Tom in 500 Days of Summer.
It's not unrealistic to say that the softbois of fiction reflect the very real feelings of actual men. Despite what many may believe of that atemporal period ‘the olden days’, with its connotations of iron-clad soldiers and addled notions of Henry VIII chomping on a chicken leg whilst watching his wife’s decapitation, there have always been men who have felt confident to openly express their innermost thoughts and feelings. In fact, throughout history there have even been particular periods where this has been fashionable.
During the Renaissance, the popularity of humanism with its focus on introspective self-development, alongside the elevation of the arts as something intellectually and emotionally stimulating, meant that it was highly looked upon for gentlemen to display emotional aptitude. In Elizabethan England, there was even a phenomenon known as 'the English malady', which described the wave of men openly expressing feelings of melancholy. The 15th century poet Sir Philip Sidney wrote of alienation and unrequited love in his book Astrophel And Stella: I whose narrator writes in the hopes that his lover will understand the torment he is experiencing: ‘Helpless in my throes, Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”' The poem emphasises the need to unveil emotional turmoil, for a sense of release, if nothing else.
Similarly the singer and composer John Dowland was most popular for his desolate lyrics, with lines such as: ‘In darkness let me dwell / the ground shall sorrow be / The roof despair / to bar all cheerful light from me.' He also wrote a few cheeky lines aimed at the ladies, that could very well be posted into the popular poking-fun-at-softbois Instagram account @beam_me_up_softboi today: ‘Come kisse me sweet and kill mee / So shal your hart be eased / And I shall rest content and dye well pleased.’
Portraits of men in country gardens, staring off into the middle distance also came into vogue. Most notably, Nicholas Hilliard’s Young Man among Roses (circa 1587) depicts a man leaning thoughtfully against a tree, hand on heart and surrounded by vines of roses. Tall and handsome with soft curly hair, he is clad in white hose, a short bejewelled doublet, lacy ruff and fur cape draped carelessly over one shoulder. Even by Elizabethan standards, he is particularly flamboyant - something commonly seen in this style of portraiture and used as a way to visually express deeper sensibilities.
This ‘English malady’ may not simply have been a fad affected by fashionable and idle gentlemen, however. We know that men do experience melancholy, contrary to popular stereotyping, and this creative wave of dolorous expression could well have been a way to share and seek to understand very real emotions. The Renaissance was a time before the psychology research we take as fundamental; it was a time when the mind and body was believed to be ruled primarily by the balance of humours and planetary alignment, which led to a variety of gory-sounding treatments for illnesses mental or physical, that did not necessarily solve the problem. What's more, in Europe, suicide rates had increased due to a natural phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age, a period of significant temperature decline which peaked during the 16th century. Therefore channelling emotions about great uncertainty through poetry, song, art and literature might, in some ways, have been a form of release, when none was professionally available.
During the late 18th to the mid-19th century, the proponents of the Romantic art movement advocated emotional expression through creativity. Writers, artists and poets pushed back against the rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, from the soot-blackened factories dominating the urban landscape and darkening the skies; to the heavy machinery operated by an organised workforce that changed society on a fundamental level; and increased geographic and economic mobility which shook up society as they knew it then. The Romantics looked back to the past with a sense of rose-tinted nostalgia, yearning for a time of unblemished nature, and placing emphasis on the power of the natural world to inspire an intense feeling of awe, known as the sublime. They placed great value on these experiences of intense emotion, later modelling their own personalities on the heroes of Lord Byron's novels: melancholy, dark, brooding, and rebellious.
The second swathe of Romantics included artists such as Henry Fuseli, Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W Turner, as well as celebrity poets such as Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Great emphasis was placed on the imagination and the exploration of one's innermost thoughts and emotions. To underscore this sense of emotional freedom and artistic sensibility, the Romantics adopted a particular visual aesthetic trope, as captured in portraiture; the beautiful, pale and solitary male figure, deep in thought and often poised with a quill as though caught in the midst of creativity. One can easily draw comparisons with the softbois of 2020, with their film cameras and Moleskines bursting with rough-penned poetry.
As exemplified in Alfred Clint’s famous 1829 portrait of Shelley, the softboi figure is often portrayed as somewhat undone, his loose fitting shirt unbuttoned, with a wide, upturned collar, as though disregarding the regular restraints of polite society. Shelley indeed flaunted the rules of convention by embarking upon his renowned passionate affair with the 16-year-old Mary Godwin while already married: Godwin would go on to become his second wife, his editor and the author of one of the most influential books of all time, Frankenstein. As the notoriety of the Romantics grew, this unrestricted fashion became increasingly à la mode. One needs only to think of international playboy Harry Styles and his penchant for ruffled Romantic eveningwear (c.f. his Gucci womenswear jumpsuit worn at the 2019 Met Gala) to see a Shelley parallel.
The softboi aesthetic also, however, became associated with a sense of tragedy. Keats' delicate frame and pale yet flushed complexion were physical symptoms of his battle with tuberculosis. Consumption, as tuberculosis was then called, became associated with tragic beauty, with Romantics coming to believe that 'consumption was a trait often associated with gifted and talented people’. A stylised tragic appearance added to conveying a sense of heightened mental intellect.
The modern softboi has emerged amongst a revolution; technological as opposed to industrial. He similarly faces wide-sweeping changes in the way in which society interacts and exchanges as capitalism progresses and the integration of social media into daily life continues apace. One characteristic of a softboi is a similar sense of false nostalgia to the Romantics, yearning for a simpler or more authentic time, returning to older technology even though newer alternatives are available. He is known to collect vinyls to play on his Crosley record player, despite also having a Spotify subscription. He owns an iPhone, yet prefers to take photographs on an analogue camera. He is fond of perusing vintage and charity shops, yet has access to thousands of online retailers. Like the Romantics, the modern softboi's response to an increasingly alienated world is to retreat into an idealised past.
Timothée Chalamet and the series of soulful, troubled youths he has played on screen may have replaced John Keats as the sad, skinny icon for today, but the softboi's appeal is eternal.