FLORENCE, Italy — From the showy resplendence of medieval courts to Louis XIV’s kitten heels and Beau Brummell’s tailored Regency elegance, as in the animal kingdom, it’s the male of our species that has long flaunted his plumage. But then it stopped. Over the past 70 years, men’s dressing has been dominated by a sombre Victorian sensibility and a Midwestern blue jeans kind of practicality.
“I think in the past, with American men especially, as backwards as it is, if you cared about clothing you were of a certain type of sexuality,” said Eugene Tong, style director of Details. “Archetypes of American men in particular — you know, the cowboy, the rugged guy in t-shirts and jeans — weren’t supposed to care about fashion.”
But in recent years, the global men’s fashion market has boomed, outpacing the growth of womenswear, and a modern form of dandyism has not only appeared, but become widely accepted. “There are fewer hang-ups about men being interested in buying a bag or buying a new bracelet. The stigma attached to it — that may have been potentially stopping men from buying something in the past — has moved away in a big way,” said Tom Kalenderian of Barneys New York. “Men are more comfortable being fashionable. Men are more comfortable being dandy. The attitude has really changed.”
The drivers of this shift are many. But one of the most interesting key factors is unmistakable: the peacocks of Pitti Uomo.
“When you say ‘Pitti Man’ you immediately get a picture. It’s a man that is wearing a suit, stripes or checks, and it is cut so small that they can barely move. They have a waistcoat and the arch of the necktie is really pronounced,” said Italian fashion journalist Angelo Flaccavento, referring to the sharply dressed men who have populated a steady stream of street style images shot at the Florentine trade show Pitti Uomo in recent years. “They’re not wearing a suit to hide their body. They’re actually wearing a suit to showcase their body. If you look around, it’s never one man, but it’s groups of men. They might be peacocks, but they are still men in the way they behave, move, pose,” he continued.
“It’s a very Italian way of dressing,” said Tong, “very buttoned up, tailored, soft-shouldered suiting and bracelets — multiple bracelets. More than anywhere else, I think the peacocking term came out of Pitti. It is very dandy, very suited and then, at the same time, everyone is trying to express himself.”
In recent cycles, these efforts have become more and more pronounced. “Four or five years ago it changed. People attending Pitti — they’ve always put a lot of effort into what they are wearing, but not as much as they’re doing now. People want their picture to be taken,” said Flaccavento, explaining the power of online street style images highlighting a man’s eye-catching plumage. “If the picture is taken, it can be turned into a publication or a blog — it can turn into money and jobs.”
“You don’t really expect that type of attention or that kind of chaos to go on outside of a trade show like Pitti,” said Tong. “There is a huge Korean contingency, a huge Japanese contingency, the staples like the Scott Schumans and Tommy Tons of the world – it has become a thing for sure – and I can best describe it as being a circus.”
But the “circus,” widely captured and circulated online, has had global impact, informing the behaviour of men around the world. “The Pitti look now is instantly recognisable; men have aspired to replicate the look and also showcase it via their own personal style blogs or on Instagram. The Pitti movement is in some way responsible for all those selfies you find of dudes showcasing what they’re wearing from head to toe,” said the Canadian photographer Tommy Ton, who, along with Scott ‘The Sartorialist’ Schuman, is once of the most prominent chroniclers of street style. “Once more imagery from Pitti became more accessible via social media and blogs, it sort of gave birth to the ‘hashtag menswear’ movement. It definitely opened a lot of eyes and piqued quite a lot of interest,” Ton continued.
“It’s more seductive than an advertorial because it’s someone like you,” said Flaccavento. “It’s not someone with a super perfect body, not a model, not a 16-year-old dressed in something that has been tailored and adjusted by stylists… Street style is more penetrating. It’s shot on the street in natural light. It’s rougher, easier to emulate; you think, ‘Oh I like that, I can do it as well.’ There’s a sense of belonging to a tribe of very elegant people. It is a formal show and the look carries an attractive narrative from the 1950s. And I think there is another element,” he continued. “Often you can see pictures of people standing at fashion shows in Paris or Milan or wherever and, I mean, you might think these people are, matter of fact, gay. At Pitti, it always looks like they’re trying to seduce women,” he said, underscoring the appeal of Pitti’s peacocks to a relatively wide range of heterosexual male consumers.
But as the Internet-fueled peacocking phenomenon has grown, its once authentic and spontaneous nature has given way to something more calculated. “The picture street style gives is not completely accurate or real. It’s a mostly a mise en scène. I mean, when you are aware of the eye of the photographer and that he is taking pictures, you’re not natural,” said Flaccavento. “Often, photographically, the look is very stylish and very elegant, but most of the looks at Pitti are very forced. The fact that it is ‘street style’ makes it sound or look like a documentary, but it’s not a documentary; the pictures are taken during fashion week and not during the ordinary year. Brands lend clothes for these weeks, because they know they will be photographed.”
Whether the growing commercialisation of Pitti street style will dilute its impact remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: trends come and trends go, and the look associated with Pitti’s peacocks has been joined by a chorus of others. “In terms of men’s trends, there was a very Italian influence on the way men were dressing,” Tong continued. “It had a lot of elements of that business casual idea, making it accessible. The thing that I think the Italians nailed, what people started gravitating towards and started noticing, was the fit. For a time, it was the dominant look in men’s fashion, but as with everything else — American heritage, work wear — trends are constantly shifting and moving.”
“It is still a very popular look and very strong on a retail side as well, but there have been other kind of looks that have penetrated through and become just as accessible.”
Visit the new BoF Menswear Hub to discover more menswear news and analysis from BoF correspondents and around the web, as well as a live index of the most influential people and retailers shaping the global menswear market.