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Essay

Essay: Men’s Bottoms

by Shaun Cole on 20 July 2010

Cultural theorist Shaun Cole contemplates the male derrière in fashion imagery.

Cultural theorist Shaun Cole contemplates the male derrière in fashion imagery.

'…the secondary sexual characters have been a far more widespread method of sexual allurement than the primary sexual characters, and in the most civilised countries to-day they still constitute the most attractive of such methods to the majority of the population.'
Ellis Havelock, Psychology of Sex, 1933

Ellis was focussing primarily upon women’s buttocks as 'an important feature of beauty' but if, as he noted, male and female sexual organs cannot 'be greatly modified by sexual or natural selection' retaining their ‘primitive character’ and so could not easily be 'regarded as beautiful from the point of view of aesthetic contemplation,' then perhaps the male behind could be considered a thing of beauty or at least of fashionable interest. Men’s bottoms are a contested and emotive sight/site. Their visibility in fashion and fashion-related imagery presents a variety of readings that are influenced by the multitude of cultural ambiguities and attitudes that surround relationships with the human rear end: they are considered humorous, erotic, beautiful, vulgar, dirty and shameful. The 'fashioned' or 'fashionable' male bottom frequently appears semi-clad hinting at the play of muscles and flesh beneath the layers of fabric, and as Valerie Steele has argued ‘by concealing the body, clothes excite sexual curiosity and create in the viewer the desire to remove them.'

In 2008 images with a man’s buttocks 'peeping' out above his jeans were seized by police from an Abercrombie and Fitch store in Virginia Beach

The male bottom in Simon Foxton and Nick Knight’s 1986 Punk sits between clothed and unclothed: parts of it are covered by the shiny grey fabric of his military trousers and the silver, almost metallic straps of his jockstrap. Both of which draw the eye to the darker line of the cleft between his buttocks, encouraging the viewer to consider what Thomas Waugh has described as 'the dark temple of the asshole.' But is this an uncomfortable sexual curiosity. For the gay male viewer there is a familiarity with such imagery, it draws upon traditions of physique photography, classical statuary, academic nudes, gay pornography and artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe. But do such images cause discomfort amongst a straight male or female audience? In 2008 images with a man’s buttocks 'peeping' out above his jeans were seized by police from an Abercrombie and Fitch store in Virginia Beach while in early 2010 the bare muscular buttocks of French model David Agbodji were hoisted above Houston Street in New York as part of the Spring/Summer 2010 Calvin Klein Collection campaign photographed by Stephen Klein. Do such images need, as the late Richard Martin asked, to be careful to avoid ‘capitulation to the anal anxieties in male depiction’? In a time when the predominant fashion for young males is some form of low-slung trouser that reveals a greater or lesser amount of underpant-covered buttock, has viewing the male bottom become commonplace, or is it still a shock to see images of male buttocks?

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