Here Come the Mirror Men: Why The Future is Metrosexual

According to Wordpsy.com and sev­eral dic­tion­ar­ies this essay by Mark Simpson in the UK national news­pa­per the Independent (15/11/94) saw the first appear­ance of the word ‘met­ro­sexual’ in print. (Though it wasn’t until Simpson returned to the sub­ject in 2002 for Salon.com in ‘Meet the Metrosexual’ that the term took off globally.)

MarkyMark2 Here Come the Mirror Men: Why The Future is Metrosexual

IT’S BEEN KEPT under­ground for too long,’ observes one sharply dressed ‘met­ro­sexual’ in his early twen­ties. He has a per­fect com­plex­ion and pre­cisely gelled hair, and is inspect­ing a dis­play of costly after­shaves. ‘This exhib­i­tion shows that male vanity’s finally com­ing out of the closet.’

And it’s busy filling the new-found space in there with expens­ive clothes and accessor­ies. ‘It’s a Man’s World — Britain’s first style exhib­i­tion for men’, organ­ised by GQ magazine in London last week­end, proves that male nar­ciss­ism is here and we’d bet­ter get used to it.

With pavil­ions rep­res­ent­ing top men’s fash­ion design­ers such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani and all the latest ‘groom­ing’ products, It’s a Man’s World is, as Peter Stuart, GQ pub­lisher, describes it, ‘a ter­rific shop­ping experience.’

Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high dis­pos­able income, liv­ing or work­ing in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are), is per­haps the most prom­ising con­sumer mar­ket of the dec­ade. In the Eighties he was only to be found inside fash­ion magazines such as GQ, in tele­vi­sion advert­ise­ments for Levis jeans or in gay bars. In the Nineties, he’s every­where and he’s going shopping.

Davidoff Here Come the Mirror Men: Why The Future is Metrosexual

Metrosexual man wears Davidoff ‘Cool Water’ after­shave (the one with the naked body­builder on the beach), Paul Smith jack­ets (Ryan Giggs wears them), cor­duroy shirts (Elvis wore them), chi­nos (Steve McQueen wore them), motor­cycle boots (Marlon Brando wore them), Calvin Klein under­wear (Marky Mark wears noth­ing else). Metrosexual man is a com­mod­ity fet­ish­ist: a col­lector of fantas­ies about the male sold to him by advertising.

Even the title of the exhib­i­tion reveals how much times have changed. Not so long ago the expres­sion con­veyed the idea that the world belonged to that half which shaved. Nowadays it seems to mean that you have to have the right après-rasage face cream.

On one of the stands at It’s a Mans World men lie supine while attract­ive women in white coats rub lux­uri­ous mois­tur­isers into their faces; cam­eras dis­play the beauty treat­ment in close-up on banks of screens. Behold the met­ro­sexual pampered by women, tech­no­logy and cap­it­al­ism! Behold the met­ro­sexual as star.

It feels nice. Basically you get a free facial out of it,’ says James, a nineteen-year-old in natty jeans and an Italian designer shirt, face aglow. ‘This stuff is a bit out of my price range, I’m a stu­dent,’ he con­fesses. ‘But if I had the money I might well buy the stuff.’

Is all this atten­tion to appear­ance a good thing? ‘Yes,’ says another young man, casually-but-carefully dressed in Caterpillar boots, pristine Levi’s, T-shirt, sweat­shirt and bomber jacket. ‘If women take so much trouble over their appear­ance it’s only fair that men should take a bit more them­selves. My girl­friend would cer­tainly agree!’

But is it really about fair­ness? Or about what you see when you look in the mir­ror? ‘I sup­pose it’s mostly the way you feel,’ he admits.

A twenty-one-year-old stock man­ager in Gap agrees. ‘Men are just as vain as women and it’s a good thing that we’re able to show it these days.’

One of the major interests behind met­ro­sexual pride, as the impress­ive list of spon­sors of this event (Dunhill to Porsche, Timberland to Simpson’s of Piccadilly) shows, is big busi­ness. Metrosexuals are the cre­ation of capitalism’s vora­cious appet­ite for new markets.

Traditionally, het­ero­sexual men were the world’s worst con­sumers. All they bought was beer, fags and the occa­sional Durex — the Wife or ‘Mum’ bought everything else. In a con­sumer­ist world, het­ero­sexual men had no future. So they were replaced by the metrosexual.

The pro­mo­tion of met­ro­sexu­al­ity was left to the men’s style press, magazines such as The Face, GQ, Esquire, Arena and FHM, the new media which took off in the Eighties and is still grow­ing (GQ gains 10,000 new read­ers every month). They filled their magazines with images of nar­ciss­istic young men sport­ing fash­ion­able clothes and accessor­ies. And they per­suaded other young men to study them with a mix­ture of envy and desire.

Some people said unkind things. American GQ, for example, was pop­ularly dubbed ‘Gay Quarterly’. Little won­der that all these magazines — with the pos­sible excep­tion of The Face — address their read­er­ship as if none of them was homo­sexual or even bisexual. Little won­der that It’s a Man’s World organ­iser Peter Stuart found it neces­sary to tell me that ‘all the men will bring their girlfriends.’

The ‘het­ero­sexual’ address of these magazines is a con­ven­tion. There to reas­sure the read­er­ship and their advert­isers that their ‘unmanly’ pas­sions are in fact manly. Nevertheless, the met­ro­sexual man con­tra­dicts the basic premise of tra­di­tional het­ero­sexu­al­ity — that only women are looked at and only men do the look­ing. Metrosexual man might prefer women, he might prefer men, but when all’s said and done noth­ing comes between him and his reflection.

Metrosexuality was of course, test-marketed on gay men — with enorm­ous suc­cess. It’s a Man’s World is billed as the first men’s style exhib­i­tion — but the Gay Lifestyles Exhibition, which fea­tures fash­ion shows and a whole range of ‘mens products’, is already in its third year. It was in the style-obsessed Eighties that the ‘gay life­style’ — the single man liv­ing in the met­ro­polis and tak­ing him­self as his own love-object — became an aspir­a­tion for non-homosexuals.

Perhaps this is why Attitude, a style magazine launched earlier this year felt able to break with con­ven­tion and address itself openly to gay men and ‘strays’ (gay act­ing straight men).

The New Lad bible Loaded magazine, for all its fea­tures on sport, babes and sport, is (closeted) met­ro­sexual. Just as its anti-style is a style (last month it car­ried a sup­ple­ment for ‘no non­sense’ clothes, such as jeans and boots), it’s het­ero­sexu­al­ity is so self-conscious, so stud­ied, that it’s actu­ally rather camp. New Lads, for all their burp­ing blokeish­ness, are just as much in love with their own image as any met­ro­sexual, they just haven’t come to terms yet.

Nor is met­ro­sexu­al­ity a vice restric­ted to the pon­cey Southern middle-classes. Working class boys are, if any­thing, even more sus­cept­ible to it. For example, Newcastle men between the ages of eight­een and thirty-five, appar­ently spend more money per head on clothes than any other men in Europe. If you live with your mother, as do many work­ing class lads until they marry, and, cru­cially, you have a job — your dis­pos­able income and your met­ro­sexual tend­en­cies are likely to be high.

And met­ro­sexu­als have an amaz­ing sense of solid­ar­ity. Back at It’s a Man’s World, Steve and Paul, two fash­ion­ably dressed men-about-London in their late twen­ties, admit to spend­ing ‘a sub­stan­tial amount’ of their income on male cos­met­ics and clothes, and think that the exhib­i­tion is ‘great’. But they’re wor­ried they might be let­ting the side down.

Says Steve: ‘It’s a shame you picked us to talk to because we’re gay and people might think that a show like this is just for gays and wouldn’t come. The thing is, straight men are just begin­ning to dis­cover the joys of shop­ping and we wouldn’t want to scare them off.’

This essay is col­lec­ted in Simpson’s ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’