Bedazzling the Male

 

 

 

Would drop earrings be too much at the office, the guy asks the fashion columnist, proud to be on trend. From coded ear piercings that nobody could ever, forgive the pun, keep straight, men eased into the pirate’s hoop and Brad Pitt’s armful of bracelets, and now their jewelry has exploded: dazzling rings, pendants, diamond brooches and, yes, drop earrings, often pearl.

Do these guys not realize that the first things a woman removes when she comes home—unless she is wearing heels—are her drop earrings? Unisex clothes are easy to understand—skirts are far more comfortable than pants—and I suppose it should feel good that men want to adopt female practices. But could they not choose deep, intimate talks with friends, or the way women drop off food and scoop up children to help someone who is sick or grieving? Nope. They want the earrings.

First it was product. Gooey hair stuff, moisturizer. Then hair color, tanning, concealer, maybe a wee bit of eyeliner, nothing too Goth. Spa services ceased to cause eye-rolls. Manscaping shaved the old hirsute notion of virility right off.

I just cannot fathom why they want all the bother.

Time was, men put on some forgiving wool and strangled themselves with a tie and that was that. I envied them that freedom. I feel about the current trajectory the way I felt when a peaceful city in Thailand got its first Walmart. Really? You want this?

The deeper question is always why. Is it the pampering? That would open up various motives: you are stressed and exhausted and need it; you have been working extra hard and deserve it; you have permission to regress a little, feel yourself swaddled or rocked or soothed; you are secret royalty and should always live this way; or you spend all your time taking care of other people and now it is your turn. In the recent past, pampering of this sort was women’s domain. Men used cigar rooms, sports, dive bars…. And perhaps all that has lost its power to soothe. What was the reason for adornment in the distant past? The round gold hat badges worn during the Habsburg-Valois Italian Wars became part of “ritual acts of deference that characterized visual power plays between men.” More than decoration, the hat badges were “objects that worked to simultaneously uphold and undermine ideas of hegemonic masculinity during the wars of the early sixteenth century.”

In Ahkenaten’s time, men wore broad collars of colorful carved beads, because jewelry in ancient Egypt was believed to protect the wearer and bringing luck or guidance. Thucydides wrote of a male chignon that became fashionable in ancient Greece, fastened with a clasp of golden grasshoppers. In ancient Rome, men adorned themselves even more fastidiously, because the correct appearance was a political prerequisite. In India, men’s jewelry was stunningly elaborate.

Pearls dripped from the noble lobes of Sir Walter Raleigh, and throughout Tudor and Jacobean England, men valued jewels “not merely for their intrinsic monetary worth, but also for their ability to reflect status and lineage, as well as sustain social bonds and networks of reciprocity.” In the Renaissance, jewelry signaled wealth and power even more forcefully. Chains of office and intricate seal rings reminded others of the wearer’s power.

In the past few centuries, you can see a similar symbolism. Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Longines, Tag Heuer, Piaget—men’s watches make even louder “statements” than women’s bags. Maybe when they became superfluous, still worn but more sporadically and with no real need to exist, they created a vacuum that had to be filled with other significant and expensive objects? Signet rings are only useful if you have a family crest; other men have had to content themselves with school rings, crosses, wedding bands, and military decorations. (The military has always understood the need for bright, beautiful, and conspicuous proof of mettle.)

The traditional jewelry all relies on long-established systems of reference, though. The new jewelry will have to create its own vocabulary.

To that end, Tiffany has come up with a jewelry guide for men, a quite conservative one. Two of its four “essential” pieces are the ID bracelet and the ID tag necklace, and this is a solid clue. Jewelry is often self-expression.

Sometimes it points to what we love, birds or flowers or emblems of belief. Sometimes it is just ego, wrought in precious metal. The Wall Street Journal had a more sentimental take when it tried to explain “How Men Can Wear Jewelry Without Looking Like Johnny Depp.” First acknowledging males’ “general fear of adornment,” the article then assuaged that fear by pointing out all the new baubles for men at Barneys New York, all the #mensjewelry on Instagram. Men, said the fashion reporter, now realize that jewelry is a keepsake. An object that can trigger a memory or mark a milestone.

But somehow I doubt that is what Napoleon had in mind when he insisted diamonds be worn in his court.

Black men have worn jewelry a little more easily—Chadwick Boseman even pulled off three floral brooches, Tiffany diamonds, on a lapel. My Italian stepdad loved his gold chains. But these are not signs of power or keepsakes, so are they shows of wealth, sparkle, status, or a fun flamboyance? That depends on the individual. Forbes calls the latest jewelry “genderless,” noting that in the shows, men’s jewelry was “abundantly apparent from bead necklaces to metal elements of nature—even shells and pearls.” Unlike Sir Walter Raleigh’s earrings, though, today’s pearls “carry a message of globe-trotting tourism. The idea of men in pearls has come to symbolize a period of artistic culture.”

That would be worth celebrating. But who is spreading that artistic culture to the engineers who wear tighty-wighties and solid navy sweatshirts? I detect a whiff of commerce. Men are being urged to spend more on themselves, and they are agreeing gladly. (The old imperative, to buy your wife or girlfriend diamonds at every chance, was far less fun.) Jared insists, to its own benefit, that “pearl will begin to trend.” Vogue says it already has, noting after the 2022 fashion shows that “men in pearls was just the beginning,” and “there’s never been more jewelry on the men’s runways.”

Much of this jewelry tilts toward gender fluidity, toward androgyny. Younger men seem happy to wear it, eager to insist that it does not threaten their masculinity or that they have moved beyond traditional masculinity anyway. Yet every report on men’s jewelry is accompanied by a sidebar or guide to staying manly.

Maybe everybody just wants to look a little more interesting, a little less stereotypically anything. Men have been shoved into tight boxes for so long. Thinking about this, working past my instinctive aversion, I realize that men have had a far stricter dress code than women have. For centuries, they were meant to be quiet, sober, conservative bastions of—well, of whatever we needed them to be at the time. If what they want now is to be a little softer and shinier, a little more decorative, what is the harm?

I miss the absence of fuss, though, and the scorn for all that self-conscious self-presentation. Men’s simplicity always felt like a counterbalance. It made tilting your head to attach one of those drop earrings or lifting your hair to let your husband fasten a necklace feel feminine and sexy. The problem with androgyny is that we will all be admiring the same things in each other, like schoolgirls swapping accessories, and we will need to find new sources of contrast and difference.

People in same-sex relationships are already good at that. So are artists and those who are nonbinary or androgynous. They make deliberate decisions when they dress and adorn themselves, and they know exactly what sort of personality they are expressing. Straight people have relied on couture, if they had money, or rules, if they did not.

If we are going to pull this off without leaning on the past, we will need more creative options than polished metal identity tags.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!