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Isn't He Lovely: Do These Blue Jeans Make My Butt Look Gay?

album cover for bruce springsteen's born in the usa with the blue jeaned rear facing the camera against an american flag background

For starters, this post title is a reference to a brief scene in Scary Movie—which I a) admittedly have never seen and b) admittedly never plan to see—where Shawn Wayans asks his pal whether his tank top makes him "look gay." And it also comes from a brief Internet meme photo of a model sporting a hoodie emblazoned with a phallus. Homophobic bros around the Interweb guffawed aloud on message boards, simultaneously airing their disgust at the men would dare to so blatantly broadcast their sexuality. 

Yet it isn't shirts and outwear that fellas might want to fret over so much as the style of their jeans. As with fashion choices in general, women's blue jean options are wide open in contrast. We rarely have to think twice about the messaging subliminally stitched into our favorite denim; just avoid the dreaded "mom jeans," and you're good to go. Yes, the hegemonic male uniform of jeans and shirt is far more pared down than the extensive female dress code but those pants, I'd argue, are far more fraught with gendered messages. Not to kowtow to every denim manufacturer out there, but in a way, the jeans "make the man" in a way no other article of clothing does.

We pay a curious amount of attention to blue jeans specifically, a staple wardrobe item in virtually any wardrobe, both young and old. Despite Lee Jeans proclaiming in 2010 that "real men" suffer from "shop-a-phobia" and couldn't give a hoot about finding the perfect pair, the type of jeans a man slips on nevertheless seems to say a lot about how he projects his masculinity and sexuality (which is probably the culprit of the bogus shop-a-phobia). And who are these "real men," anyway? Are they the ones outfitted in Garth Brooks-y cowboy bootcut Wranglers or skin-tight indie rock frontman fare? Or are they one who prefer the saggy and baggy, or distressed and bedazzled? So many choices, so many (unnecessary?) implications about what started as a practical, durable pant for California gold miners.

jonas brothers all wearing skinny jeans and sunglasses against a whitish gray backdrop

Denim came to my mind while pondering heteronormative clothing taboos. Why, for instance, do we associate shorter and tighter (or merely more tailored) with gay closets and looser and longer with straight ones? Ever since the Great Masculine Renunciation in the mid-1800s that decried the sartorial flourishes of Beau Brummell and his dandy followers, Western culture has adhered more strictly to heteronormative male dress code and hygiene habits. Diverging from those guidelines, a natural instinct, is an act of rebellion, as Paula A. Baxter, historical menswear curator explains in The Branded Male: "A universal truth emerged early on. Young men are quick to adopt flashy, often sexually provocative garments as a means of advertising their virility." 

In The Male Body Susan Bordo discusses how demin became a billboard of sorts for male sexuality with Marlon Brando's outfit in A Streetcar Named Desire. His tight white t-shirt and groin-hugging jeans "became the style for sexual macho in many gay male circles and a required uniform for many would-be teen rebels." Fast forward to Calvin Klein in the mid-'70s, and the innuendo enters more mainstream male fashion. A biography on the iconic designer says:

[Calvin Klein] cut the rise, or area from the waistband to under the groin, much shorter to accentuate the crotch and pull the seam up between the buttocks, giving the behind more shape and prominence. The result was instant sex appeal..."

Research from the Global Denim Project echoes this shift from denim as a codifying uniform to more of a sexual statement: 

When looking at males it was clear that sexual orientation interacted potently with jeans practices. While heterosexual males were concerned mostly with "comfort", using jeans to articulate traditional masculine qualities such as bulk or strength, among homosexual males we found much concern for the seductive qualities of jeans, especially very tight jeans that emphasise the body, the back in particular.

This isn't to delineate between so-called "gay" and "straight" jeans, but to undrescore how culture has drawn correlations between clothing fit and style and male sexuality. And nothing riles up insecurities and homophobic fears more than when those lines become blurred. Oh, yes, I'm talking about the vitriol men wearing skinny jeans have attracted and the nonsense that "real men" don't wear them. Again, who are these bona fide menfolk? And more importantly, how and why does denim of all things determine it? 

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Comments

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Flagging Red: Fisting Bottom

I can't count how many (presumably) straight hipster men I've seen in Silverlake/Echo Park wearing beautifully tight blue jeans and flagging a red hankie out of their pocket. And each time I've had to resist pulling them aside and asking them if they're really cruising for a fisting top...

This may be my biggest pet

This may be my biggest pet peeve about American masculinity (masculinity in other parts of the world has its own issues) is this panicky fear that if fabric at any point touches one's leg, one will instantly become gay. Aside from being personally limiting to dudes, it's such a terrible, terrible aesthetic, these pants that hang like empty flour sacks, whether jeans or *shudder* khakis. And because they're so much too big, they're bunches together with a belt, and a shirt tucked in. Makes me shudder; it took me years to persuade my partner that pants, in fact, need to fit. It's like some guys take pride in looking as terribly dressed as possible (or like a friend said, "like they're going to roll around in mud all day, rather than work in an office." (and I am not even talking about it as an attractiveness thing; I'm not trying to objectify, I merely wish there wasn't this hysterical fear of clothes that fit. Pants really isn't the only issue.)

real men wear women's jeans for "comfort"

it's true; homophobic fears do arise when lines are blurred re: fashion and sexuality/ orientation. But recent news about Justin Bieber's reasons for wearing women's jeans, for instance ("comfort" vs style) seemed to appease the fears= although I am sceptical about that from seeing hostile reactions from some male commentators.

Men in Women's

I must confess ignorance on the Justin Beiber front, but this reminded me of the hipster guys I went to high school with (class of 2006) who wore women's jeans. There were always rumors floating around - does he or doesn't he? - but some guys were pretty up front about it, and the fact that they did it for aesthetic reasons. Thoughts?

Writing this post also

Writing this post also reminded me of the indie rock guys in college who openly wore women's jeans around. Although it attracted the homophobic, knee-jerk sexuality questions, I remember that the guys who were the most open about their fashion choices were some of the most desirable in the scene -- among women. Though that's probably more related to their self-confidence in not caring about the implications of their tight denim...