The Discreet Charm of Half-Dressed Men

UPDATED from October 2005

Ryan LeBar stripping off

Half-naked men!

It's hard to top full-frontal nudity. But some half-dressed men -- like the one at left -- manage to do it with the sheer menace of their stare... the size of their arms! ... the rip of their abs!

Why is it that certain stages of undress appear more naked than outright nudity?

The answer, I think, lies in the eye of the beholder.

Certainly we gay men look at half-naked men more aggressively than women do. The difference has little to do with homosexuality, a lot to do with the male sexual gaze.

"Men look at women," gender scholar John Berger famously observed. "Women watch themselves being looked at."

It's a crucial difference. I think it is this eye-hunger, the frank aggressiveness of the male gaze, that explains why the half-nude seems more maddening to us than the Full Monty.

There is also the fetish power of clothing. Fetishes, for the most part, are about clothes -- particularly those sexually charged costumes in which the body appears to be both naked and not naked at the same time:

Fire down below

Speedos, jockstraps, rubber body suits, dirty socks, black-net underwear -- let us count the ways!

Fetishes are mostly of two types: Suggestive Concealment (Speedos, for instance) or Symbolic displacement ( such as the foot, which in this scheme, stands in for the penis.)

The half-dressed man, as he appears in advertisements and in film, plays in the waters of this fetishistic undercurrent, implying more than he shows, symbolizing with his beefy arms and taut torso the virility of his stiffened member.

Seeing Through Clothes, a scholarly text I found myself re-reading today, examines both the dressed and the undressed through the eyes of an art historian. The status information clothing adds to an erotic image, author Anne Hollander explains, is often

A conception of clothes as disguise ... a simple screen that hides the truth or, more subtly, a distracting display that demands attention but confounds true perception.

These notions invoke dress in its erotic function, as something that seems to promise something else, a mystery that promotes in the viewer the desire to remove it, get behind it, through it, or under it.

The idea that dress hides something is, of course, not false; in the West it usually and most importantly hides the genitals, so as to make them seem more worthy of discovery and consequently to make them into a secret> Clothing becomes a kind of temple veil.

Yet while half-dressed men now hold their own in print ads and on runways, they were not always so forthright in their eroticism.

Top man

Before the Calvin Klein Revolution -- that is before the homo-sexing of Madison Avenue -- men were presented in ways that were often calculated to challenge the male viewer. We see a slight vestigial scowl even in these up-to-the- minute photos here.

In his influential, much-quoted essay Don't Look Now: The Male Pin-up, gender-scholar Richard Dyer explores the “instabilities of the male pin-up.†For Dyer, who is a gay man, what is unstable about the pre-Calvin male pin-up -- those photos formally intended for female consumption only, depicting heart-throb movie-stars in languid poses -- is the fact that here, for once, the male is shown as compliant and inviting.

The star is glamorously lit and posed in a way commonly associated with beautiful women. "The masculinity of the male is called into question when it is so objectified," Dyer states flatly. This is why, even now, photographs of male models make such an effort to show the handsome men doing something active -- walking, riding, working.

Observes Dyer:

Where the female model typically averts her eyes, expressing modesty, patience and a lack of interest in anything else, the male model looks either off or up.

Dreamboat with open fly and rosary beads

In the case of the former, his look suggests an interest in something else that the viewer cannot see -- it certainly doesn’t suggest any interest in the viewer. Indeed, it barely acknowledges the viewer....

In the cases where the model is looking up, this always suggests a spirituality... he might be there for his face and body to be gazed at, but his mind is on higher things, and it is this upward striving that is most supposed to please...

[When male models do look at the viewer] what is crucial is the kind of look ... something very often determined by the set of the mouth that accompanies it.

When the female pin-up returns the viewer’s gaze, it is usually some kind of smile, inviting. The male pin-up, even at his most benign, still stares at the viewer ... Since Freud, it is common to describe such a look as ... penetrating

(Astute Nightcharmers will notice that our dreamboat in the photo above is not only sporting an open fly but rosary beads as well -- higher things, indeed!)

Now of course, the half-dressed man is often presented knowingly for the homosexual gaze. As the world has gotten bigger in the homo-positive glow of the Calvin Revolution, we note more smiles in our models and less disgruntle, pissed-off expressions, a rough-trade signature of yesteryear.

Today there are flashes of man-flesh not only on the runway but on the street corner. Seeing Through Clothes traces the pedigree of this recurring mainstream fashion for states of undress.

The popular street vogue for ripped jeans, we learn, and slipping waistbands is nothing new:

All ripped up and very glam

The 17th century saw the rise of the tenacious idea that rich clothing is more elegant when carelessly worn.

The dishevelment of ordinarily neat dress as an attractive upper-class masculine attribute began in England among the late 17th century melancholics

Opened shirts unfastened to show the throat and maybe some chest, worn either with open coat of no coat, or cloak and messy hair, became a standard elegant pictorial mode for men, and remains one still.

It has always expressed careless, condescending ease, masking depth of feeling -- with variously submerged suggestions of sexuality.

At another point, Hollander comments on the motive behind such fashions as the slipping waistband. This fashion -- in which the homely elastic band of the BVD is allowed to show -- has its ancestor in the can-can girl whose splits and high kicks were pointed displays of lacy, scarlet undergarments.

Our current male version is actually a form of thug swank, being a style that originated in prisons where belts are confiscated lest prisoners hang themselves or strangle each other.

Writes Hollander:

The hot thug look is a 17th Century classic!

By various means writers and artists, and lately photographers in particular, have continued to foster the old romantic belief in the superior beauty of the ill-clad.

The other side of this same view -- that beautiful clothes are usually certain to be covering essentially ugly people -- is also kept alive by artists as Richard Avedon, despite well-worn knowledge that leisured, well-nourished, and well-groom people usually look wonderful because they feel self-confident and at ease with their physical selves, and that bad food, cheap clothes and hard times really make people look dreadful because they feel and generally are at a disadvantage, and it shows. . .

[ But this idealization of the ill-clad] has given rise more than once to a fashion for rags among the rich ... [a] recurrent mode [that] reflects not just the actual upheavals of society but the old ideals embodied in Cinderella's story.

Frankly, when it comes to half-dressed men, the more ragged and raunchy the better!

©2005 Nightcharm

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