The Softboi Series: Men's Fashion Softens Up

by Sophie Walsh on 24 July 2020

In the third instalment of a four-part series, Sophie Alexa Walsh talks through how men's fashion is incorporating softness, both sartorially and emotionally.

In the third instalment of a four-part series, Sophie Alexa Walsh talks through how men's fashion is incorporating softness, both sartorially and emotionally.

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 concept of a softboi aesthetic is something up for debate. There is a desire, it seems, to set oneself apart from the crowd: even if that means that softbois all end up dressing alike. Typically, he is known to display symbols alluding to his cultural knowledge and creativity i.e. a paperback book rolled up in the back pocket, a beret, or an analogue camera. Whether those be used for peacocking, or are genuinely beloved items, it's often hard to differentiate. From there, however, there is no real rule of thumb: the softboi could be anyone from the horn-rimmed glasses wearer to the condom-style beanie lover. One thing is pretty unanimous – an aversion to all things mainstream, be that the skinny-fit formalwear seen on your run-of-the-mill prom photo, or slouchy tank tops and sweatpants that not-so-subtly highlight how much you can deadlift, as seen in ubiquitous gym selfies. No, the softboi aspires to something different.

Softboi dressing subverts the typical 'ladsy' image in a number of ways. Looking through this summer's S/S 21 shows, one route to softboi style is by adding softer touches to functional silhouettes. Cult streetwear brand Undercover have done just this in their S/S 21 lookbook, spraying bright floral prints over streetwear separates, or styling foppish white cuffs with tracksuit trousers and trainers below. The social cachet of wearing pieces from the eye-wateringly cool Japanese designer Jun Takahashi is sufficient to mitigate any suggestion of softness, assuaging any potential fears about losing face by not dressing macho.

One step further along the softboi dressing scale might be through men incorporating womenswear into their wardrobes. Straight male celebrities–many of whom are in the music industry–are increasingly experimenting with softness this way. While mega producer and hip hop artist Pharrell Williams has been wearing Chanel bouclé jackets since the noughties, more recently ex-boyband member Harry Styles has emerged as a new player in the arena, having incorporated numerous Gucci jumpsuits, including white lace and black chiffon, into his public appearances. The black chiffon number he wore to the 2019 Met Gala was in fact shown as part of the Gucci womenswear offering, rather than having been intended for men. What's remarkable about both Williams and Styles is that wearing women's clothes has, in many ways, boosted their public standing - both of them are considered style icons and are enduringly popular.

Undercover S/S 21

One version of softboi style might even be through replicating a traditional tough guy subcultural uniform, but stopping short of subscribing to the fixed worldview with which it's associated. Artist and co-founder of Boys Don't Cry collective Marcus Nelson, whose This Is England hard lad aesthetic (Fred Perry polos, Harrington jackets, short back and sides haircut) doesn't overtly semaphore his artistic sensibilities. As he notes, ‘I like wearing Fred Perry and bomber jackets: I think that there's something so cool in appearing like [a stereotypical ‘hard lad’], but actually being the complete opposite. It’s a really disarming tool and I know that a lot of the others in Boys Don't Cry also use the way that they dress as a form of communication.' This 'ladsy' style of dress might help Nelson on the collective's mission to help men talk about their mental health through art: he looks like the men he's trying to reach out to.

William S. Pollack's paradigm-shifting 1998 book Real Boys describes how boys are socialised to decry and deny weakness as they grow into men; and we can see a similar trajectory through children's wear to menswear, which becomes more and more gendered as the prospective customer grows older. While toddler clothes are relatively gender neutral, adult men's fashion is suited and booted, toughened and buttoned. But on the catwalk over the last few seasons, we've been seeing an exploration of childhood, which has loosened menswear's metaphorical tie.

In Gucci’s A/W 20 menswear show for instance, Alessando Michele invited us to ‘revise and reconsider’ the characteristics of masculinity with a journey back to childhood. He introduced knickerbockers, knee high socks, baby blue gingham and Peter Pan–collared dresses in ditsy Liberty-print florals. These were interestingly paired with khaki military style coats, tailored suiting and grungy denim. The collection not only sought to highlight the complexities of being a man today by incorporating traditionally feminine tropes alongside a more mainstream masculine aesthetic, but also was an important reflection on childhood and the way in which we socialise boys.

Louis Vuitton's S/S 21 video also picks up Gucci's playground refrain, depicting a cast of cartoon characters (e.g. a frog, a shaggy dog and a dragon) making their way from Vuitton's original home in Asnières to Paris: a lighthearted, sunshine-filled video reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. Boyhood has been a big theme for Virgil Abloh across his last few collections, as seen in his very first campaign at the house for S/S 19 involving a three-year-old playing dress-up with paper boats. Abloh noted to Vogue: 'What makes men? The different stages in one’s life, from infancy all the way through teenager, adolescent, young adult to adult.' With playtime being a place where your imagination runs riot and alternative realities can be tried out without fear of judgement: could revisiting one's childhood self be the key to incorporating softness in men's style? Certainly Michele and Abloh seem to think so.

Going further back in time, today's softboi style also takes a cue from the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th century, both in sartorial and emotional terms. The emerging menswear brand, Danshan, founded by designers Danxia Liu and Shan Peng Wong in 2016, aims to break the mould surrounding men's fashion, by exploring 'the undervalued nuances of modern male life,' with the ideal Danshan man being 'emotional, sensitive, vulnerable and dressed to reflect those qualities.' It's this sensitivity that might free men in their quest to reclaim their masculinity, ultimately 'in the hope of creating a more accepting world’. Danshan's clothes are notable for their loose and gaping silhouettes bolstered by the use of silks and satin, which speak of confident ease. There is certainly a sense of early Romanticism to the designs, harking back to the very Romantic idea of physical freedom connoting emotional freedom.

The Romantics also loved high drama and emotional catharsis, in their creative and philosophical search for the sublime; Maison Margiela's A/W 20 Artisanal documentary revealed a co-ed couture collection–including men in the traditionally female-only couture space–where drama, theatrics, poetry and history intermingled. Interspersed amongst footage of the Margiela atelier, a distraught figure beats their fists against a wall, and walks melancholically through long grass, to be submerged in what looks like Ophelia's final resting place c.f. John Everett Millais' 1852 painting. With the Artisanal collection referencing veiled religious statues, socialites of yore, and the gender-bending clubbers known as the Blitz Kids, it also saw male models serve as muses for delicate balletic ghillie shoes and wet-look dresses: Byron and Shelley would no doubt had a field day.

Romantic ideals also suffused the S/S 21 collections of Ludovic de Saint Sernin and Thom Browne, both of whom referenced the Classical beauty of the male form in nods to ancient Greece. The Romantics idolised ancient Greek art and literature as serene, simple, vigorous and pure, all of which are super desirable adjectives to be applied to a menswear collection. De Saint Sernin's video blended youth, sweltering summer and homoeroticism through its languorous eye over tanned skin - idyllic, in a word. For Thom Browne, singer-songwriter Moses Sumney directed and starred in a short film, where he appeared strong and statue-like atop a plinth like an Olympian of antiquity.

But what of 2020 softbois, with whom (male) skateboarders are often aligned? The Instagram account dedicated to shaming the worst of the softboi ilk, @beam_me_up_softboi, often features messages relating to skateboarding - one Tinder bio screenshot reads: ‘skate round town with beers and a j then have sex for hours listening to Floating Points,' which is half funny, half sad. Is it possible that skatewear could skew towards softness?

Maria Falbo’s brand COPSON brings emotional gravitas to the skate scene through its brand values that feel very on point for a positive softboi ethos. Press text explains that: ‘Sense and emotion are the primary drivers behind everything we do at COPSON,' noting that importantly the brand family ‘doesn't conform to run-of-the-mill rules and standards. We're skateboarders, but we like to dress up sometimes, we like to listen to House FM whilst driving, and classical music when in the bath.' They even reference the Romantics, who similarly ‘emphasised that sense and emotions, not simply reason and order, were equally important means of both understanding and experiencing the world.' There is even an extensive 'Culture’ section on their website that spells these out through articles on philosophy, photography, short films and playlists of emotional house music.

Within this commitment to emotional expression, COPSON is breaking the stereotypes surrounding the masochistic culture that has typically permeated skateboarding. As an ex-professional skater herself, Falbo found that when growing up, skate culture was ‘very homophobic and very macho.' She explains, 'It was frustrating because I feel like skateboarding is actually quite poetic - it's an activity that’s about community and friendship and there’s real love. It was like, "Oh my god, this world is so expressive and creative, but for some reason it's pretending to be macho." It really didn’t make any sense. It was frustrating that skate brands weren’t portraying that.’

Skateboarding is actually quite poetic, it's an activity that’s about community and friendship, and there’s real love.

In response, COPSON's messaging 'has always been a lot softer, and I think that’s what made it initially stand out’. Thankfully, ‘in the last year there's been a shift in skateboarding’ she says, as the scene is slowly becoming more accepting and open - for instance, Supreme has now sponsored their first female pro skateboarder, Beatrice Domond. Significantly, the shift has also come following tragic circumstances within the skate community. ‘There have recently been suicides in skateboarding amongst pro-skaters. I think that’s really jarred everyone, and also created a massive shift, because guys are realising that you need to talk’.

Inspired by the thriving skateboarding scene that kicked off in Barcelona a decade ago, as well as Falbo's Italian roots, COPSON is soaked in mellow Mediterranean sun. Typical skate wear, like the boxy T-shirt and coach jacket, are made from 100% cotton and pastel-coloured printed paintings by artist Jamie Humphrey have been incorporated throughout the current collection. This is not so much changing the world through clothes, but through the way we talk about people who wear the clothes. Men's fashion itself doesn't have to shout 'softboi' through particular clothing features–even though there is a hoodie that reads 'Emotional House', referencing the euphoric music genre–but it can still promote positive softboi values through its branding and culture. As COPSON's mission statement reads: 'Whether it's sunset at the poolside bar, romance, skateboarding or raving - the feeling's mutual.'

So here we have it: from the catwalk to the street, dressing to express your emotions is the way forward. Whether that's incorporating womenswear touches, revisiting a childlike mindset, interpreting historical references, or adding creativity and care to a skater lifestyle, softboi style has plenty of options. Why not give one a try?

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