The Sexist Distinction Between ‘Style’ and ‘Fashion’

Why are men celebrated as stylish and women belittled as fashion victims?

Fashion-conscious men, with very few exceptions, do not admit that they are fashion-conscious. Even men who write exuberant and informative essays on the details of tailoring, shoes and leather goods for blogs and magazines dedicated to clothing deny that they are interested in fashion. Instead, most fashionable men set up a dogmatic distinction between fashion and style.

Fashion consists of outlandish garments concocted by egocentric designers with French and Italian names and peddled by rapacious businesses. It is the domain of hairdressers, obsequious department store salespeople and, of course, women. Style, by contrast, involves the skillful combination of practical and functional garments. It is the hallmark of unimpeachably virile figures such as Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis and Michael Caine. A more inclusive list might include one or two remarkable women in the pantheon of the stylish. These women usually have the last name of “Hepburn.”

People invariably evoke the style/fashion distinction to suggest the moral superiority of style over fashion. Style is sensible while fashion is silly. Style is frugal while fashion is wasteful. Style is refined while fashion is vulgar. Style is effortlessly self-confident while fashion is anxious and grasping. Style is demotic while fashion is elitist. Style shows your connection to a community while fashion shows you’ve been duped by big business.

I was, for years, such a person. I’m an unapologetic clothes horse, but I would bristle at the suggestion that I might be fashion conscious. If asked where I bought a favorite jacket or pair of shoes, I would pride myself on not remembering: “A tailor from Naples, I think…” I’d murmur with a dismissive wave, as if the question was embarrassing.

It was only while working on my book, Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history, that I realized that my own sense of style was actually… fashionable. The self-possession my Neapolitan sport jackets offer me is really no different than the satisfaction my wife gets from her Zac Posen dresses. My John Lobbs are no less a fashion statement than her Louboutins. I also had to acknowledge that my refusal to admit this was rooted in gender stereotypes. The style/fashion distinction implies that while stylish men are elegant and cultured, fashionable women are extravagant and vain. The privileged status of style over fashion is a cigar and single malt-whiskey scented form of male chauvinism.

The History of ‘Style’ as Anti-fashion

As late the mid 18th century, the avid pursuit of fashion was, in many ways, a masculine privilege. For centuries, the most dramatic advances in fashion began with menswear. Men wore sumptuous fabrics, jewels and brocade. High heeled shoes began as men’s fashion. Military officers brought make up and eyelash curlers onto the field of battle.

Men rejected “fashion” only in the 18th century. It was such a dramatic change that later historians have called it The Great Masculine Renunciation. This “renunciation” was really just a change in fashion: men’s fashions became streamlined and unadorned. The three piece suit that emerged at this time was carefully designed to look sober, unassuming and practical, but it was really the height of artifice. The construction hidden underneath the outer layers can be as costly and elaborate as many haute couture gowns. And its purpose is not functional but aesthetic: padded shoulders and suppressed waists suggest the Greco-Roman classical ideal male body. The masculine renunciation let men renounce fashion while still following it.

This change in men’s fashion came with an ideological agenda. On the positive side, rejecting “fashion” meant rejecting the aristocratic culture of older societies in favor of Enlightenment values like equality under law, industriousness and practicality. Unfortunately, it also meant rejecting pride in the physical body as effeminate and morally suspect. This promoted sex stereotypes that stigmatized women as frivolous, vain and superficial.

It also reinforced toxic male gender roles and fueled anti-gay prejudice. In the mid 18th century, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau described any work involing clothing as a “woman’s trade,” and insisted that “the needle and sword cannot be wielded by the same hands.” Soon thereafter, serious and respectable men were “well dressed” or “stylish” but never fashionable. By the 19th century the tailor George P. Fox could insist, “While a fop is a slave to fashion, a philosopher surrenders himself to his tailor, whose duty lies in dressing him becomingly”

Stylishly Fashionable

Today, distinguishing style from fashion seems like common sense. But the style/fashion dichotomy needs to go the way of such antiquated sops to male vanity as big game trophy hunting and the droit du seigneur. Sean Connery’s Savile Row suits and Steve McQueen’s Barbour jackets, vintage Rolex Submariners and Alden shell cordovan bluchers all fit comfortably under the capacious banner of fashion. Let’s admit that none of these have much to do with practicality or function (no one actually dives wearing a costly, decades-old mechanical watch.) Like all fashion, the admirable cultivation of masculine style lets us express our personalities and social aspirations by making connections to inspiring people, activities and events. And women deserve credit for enjoying precisely the same relationship to their stiletto heels, pencil skirts, faux-fur coats and ballet flats. The next time I buy a jacket, I don’t want sexism and homophobia woven into the fabric.

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