"Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it's okay to be a boy; for girls it's like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”
- Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden
The night before this season’s menswear shows began, a small exhibition opened in an upstairs gallery at the London College of Fashion. Curated by Showstudio editor Lou Stoppard, “Mad About the Boy” is a hymn to youth – specifically, to the notion of masculine youth which has been created and perpetuated by the fashion industry in the past four decades. The roll-call of names involved (Larry Clark, Kim Jones, Meadham Kirchhoff, Judy Blame, Walter Van Beirendonck, Mark Leckey, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Gosha Rubchinskiy amongst them) gives some measure of the exhibition’s scope, and of the enduring impact which the cult of youth has had on modern menswear.
The scale of the space makes for some intriguing juxtapositions – the disheveled teenage bedrooms of Meadham Kirchhoff’s Summer 2012 menswear show (see above) jarring with Glen Luchford’s coolly sexless Gucci campaigns, or Ian MacDonald’s portraits of Eton scholars alongside J.W. Anderson’s ruffled shorts. But the common thread, for Stoppard, is what she sees as “fashion’s strange belief in the precious genius of youth – a time of infinite opportunity and spontaneous, innate coolness, mixed with liberating naivety. Designers, young and old, return to these notions – constructing, rehashing, and shaping the dream male, season in, season out.”
The exhibition is particularly strong on the sensual, sexual tropes of youth: ambiguity, frustrated and furtive desire, hormonal angst, experimentation, and exploration of identities. But there’s arguably one photograph missing – not one that falls within the show's timespan or themes, but one which illuminates much about its backstory. In 1957, Burt Glinn came to London to document the city's famed gentlemen's clubs. One of the stops on his itinerary was to see a Mayfair tailor, where he took a portrait of a boy being fitted for his first made-to-measure suit. It's a quietly chilling image that says everything that could be said about pre-youthquake menswear: a uniform that would straitjacket its wearer from school right through to the grave. You’d never think, looking at it, that Ken Russell was simultaneously photographing new tribes of Teddy Girls on west London bombsites, or that up the road in Soho the Mods and rockers were squaring up for ownership of the next decade. Ever since, the cult of youth has been intimately bound up with notions of individuality and self-expression. And that’s the joy of “Mad About the Boy”: images which are alive, raw, colorful, intimate, obscene, and above all deeply vulnerable.
It was intriguing, in the light of the exhibition, to turn to London’s menswear schedule and see so many of those concerns played out – both by headliners like J.W. Anderson and Christopher Shannon, and by newcomers like the latest Fashion East line-up, where club kid Charles Jeffrey and cult observer Rory Parnell Mooney explored two very different dimensions of the teenage experience. And it was intriguing, too, to watch as the fashion circus moved on – first to Milan, where Alessandro Michele’s Gucci reboot continued its gradual dissolving of the sexes in the heart of one of Europe’s most stereotypically gendered nations, and then to Paris, where Raf Simons’ misfitting garments paid homage to a litany of the designer’s teenage obsessions (see above). (Both Michele and Simons feature in Stoppard’s show, and she highlights critic Tim Blanks’ reflections on what he labels fashion’s “fanboy situation”: “Marc, Rad, Hedi – all these grown men given huge resources to flex their adolescent fascinations.”)
So far, so menswear. But over the past few days of womenswear shows in London, the ideas raised by “Mad About the Boy” have swiveled back into focus again. There’s always been, at the very least, a tomboyish quality to much of London’s womenswear aesthetic – most obviously in the downplayed mannishness of establishment figures like Paul Smith and Margaret Howell, but also in the urgent, rebellious androgyny of Katharine Hamnett, and the equal-opportunities subversion of Ray Petri. These days, though, if fashion’s boys are acting out, then its girls seem to be playing dress up. A new wave of designers, from Molly Goddard to Ryan Lo to Simone Rocha and beyond, are producing spectacular, frothy party-wear concoctions that celebrate traditional notions of prettiness – but subvert them too, treating them as talismanic performance objects. That sensibility was notably undermined this season by the season’s prevailing hairstyle – the buzz cut, as pioneered by Kent-born model Ruth Bell. Shorn of one of the key signifiers of femininity, the shaven-haired women on London’s catwalks looked both warrior-fierce and terrifyingly young. The contrast made their desperately pretty costumes all the more surreal – and more subversive, in a world where the laws of desire are still driven by conventional codes. Just think of the well-meaning mother in “Bend it Like Beckham,” telling off her football-mad daughter with the immortal line; “All I’m saying is, there’s a REASON why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella . . .”
But back to January. On the same night that “Mad About the Boy” opened, the official London Collections: Men opening party took place across town in a lavish St. James mansion. There, the great and good of the fashion establishment gathered – a cavalcade of forty- and fifty-somethings, resplendent in latest-season Kim Jones and Hedi Slimane. We’re constantly being told there’s no age limit to how we dress now. But the specter of middle age still looms, with the dubious allure of comfort cardigans and dad jeans. Men’s magazines thrive on name-and-shame lists: THINGS NO MAN OVER THIRTY SHOULD OWN, WHAT TO WEAR WHEN IN YOUR FORTIES. Whatever the clothes on our backs say, youth itself has become fashion’s most desired commodity. That feeling is perhaps particularly tangible in London, where the city’s narrative is littered with those who made it in the first flush of youth: McQueen and Galliano, Campbell and Moss. (For the flip side, look no further than Ossie Clark’s bitterly self-loathing diaries, charting what happened in those long, empty middle years after the spotlight’s glare faded.) Fashion’s celebration of youth can make the rest of existence seem like an afterlife – and much of what it anoints as cool is steeped in a blind refusal to ever let it go. The sudden rise to supremacy of youth-focused labels like Hood By Air, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Vetements has begun to shift fashion’s conversation into a very different arena. And it was hard not to view Stoppard’s show, filled with objects and images created almost exclusively by men in their twenties, but who are now middle-aged, without thinking of novels like Mann’s Death In Venice, or Faulkner’s Light In August, with their fascination with sex, death, and recapturing a perfect, vanished moment. (“Boys. Because this. This is beautiful.”)
But there is no Neverland here. Raf, Hedi, and their generation are nearing the end of their fifth decade. Even Felix Howard, the hard-eyed child who became the Buffalo generation’s poster boy, had to grow up: he's now a forty-something father of two. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that Stoppard’s show may come to be seen as an elegy. In Milan, the menswear conversation may have been dominated by Michele’s latest Gucci outing – but the social media buzz was all about Vine sensation Cameron Dallas, whose every move drew thousands of screaming teenage girls. Dallas represents a new wave of tidily heterosexual masculinity, one that feels utterly alien to the angst-ridden misfits in “Mad About the Boy”: pore-free, six-packed, dazzlingly-toothed, wholesome, safe. And he may just be the future, alongside the Kardashians and Hadids of this world – a new form of growing up, where children morph straight into perfect adults. There's no room in that future for an awkward age. Just a different kind of straitjacket, in fact: girls replaced by little women, and boys by little men.