It was not my express intention, but during my travels this summer I saw a lot of naked male flesh.
When they say “travel broadens the mind,” I don’t think they mean the misshapen hairy male legs, the knobby, fungus-colored feet, and wobbly, wrinkled necks that I walked among or sat next to in European airports and upscale tourist destinations.
People used to dress up to travel; now they barely dress at all.
Shorts, t-shirts, and sandals are not necessarily stomach-turning. Sandals at the beach, on tan feet that are not Hobbit-hairy are fine. On British soldiers in the African desert in World War II, shorts looked hot — not just because of the climate. Marlon Brando elevated the humble t-shirt in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Many things have downgraded how people dress to travel. Hunger for cheaper flights and airlines’ greed for profit mean travel is no longer glamorous fun, but a cattle call. Covid has added to the general confusion about private and public dressing. And it seems to be widely accepted that individual comfort trumps the sensibilities of fellow travelers.
Male dress standards have been changing for decades. (So have female ones, but that is a topic for another day.) In the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy went hatless, the hat industry died. The Nehru jacket and turtleneck in the groovy 1960s, followed by the leisure suit in the not-groovy 1970s, sounded death knells for the neck tie. The stars of 1980s TV show “Miami Vice” made t-shirts acceptable with (Armani) suits, a doubly fatal blow for the tie and traditional shirt collars.
The models of male status dressing have also evolved. In his 1942 memoir “The World of Yesterday,” Austrian writer Stefan Zweig describes how, pre-World War I, he and his friends mimicked their elders’ sober tailoring, portly figures, and facial hair. In the 1920s, when the war turned this upside down, parents began emulating their children by taking up sports and dressing like them.
The transformation is now complete. When we say “tycoon” we picture the banker mascot of the Monopoly game in his striped trousers and tailcoat. The reality is that today’s tycoon look is set by under-thirty billionaires, who dress like they are still in college, in hoodie sweatshirts, t-shirts, or cargo shorts. Pictures from this summer’s elite film festivals and summits show celebrities in Venice, Aspen and Jackson Hole in athletic shoes, fleece vests, and suits without ties. Middle-aged paunches and withered flesh be damned.
I understood the true extent of power dressing’s evolution during my summertime visits to Europe’s great museums. The museums of Britain, Italy, and Germany all have unique masterpieces. After you visit a few, their vast halls of lesser known works reveal what really kept food on artists’ tables — painting portraits of nobles, merchants and church prelates.
Clothes were one of the most potent ways to show off sitters’ power and wealth. Embroidery, fur trim, gleaming silks, and lace-trimmed ruffs had exotic origins or required skilled and expensive labor to create and maintain. They scream, “I am wealthy and powerful.” Artists who could render them effectively were in demand. Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch made a career out of his ability to depict white satin, a delicate fabric available only to wealthy people leading lives of leisure.
At times, the clothes almost overpower the man. The immense sleeves and patterns in Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII of England dominate the king. Titian’s popes are almost swallowed up by their velvet robes.
There is an honesty about these Old Master portraits. Codpieces, which showed off male genitalia, made the real message clear. There is no coy hypocrisy about the sitters’ enjoyment of wealth and power. No one play-acts at being a penurious graduate student in fleece, flip-flops, and shorts.
In many ways, the clothes in Old Master portraits are unthinkable today. The fashion of those days arose out of skills and trades now lost. A lot of the material favored by the rich is material that would be unacceptable now — either because the material itself is unacceptable, such as fur, or because the methods required to acquire such materials involves slave labor or colonial expansion. Also, this kind of clothing seems unfit for the modern, jet-setting lifestyle.
But is that really true?
Surely clothes that people wore on horseback could handle an international flight. Wouldn’t velvet papal robes be more appealing than a t-shirt or a fleece? It would mask a middle-aged paunch in style, while still being as comfortable as a bathrobe. A ruff might not be an easy wear, but it would certainly hide an aging male neck. I might not like to share an airline row with someone wearing Henry VIII’s sleeves. However, if he wore similar bloomers and hose, he’d enjoy the comfort of shorts and I would be spared his hairy legs.
I would, however, draw the line at the codpiece.