Clothing matters when we’re out in the world. The fabrics and silhouettes we wear each day help us establish our personal and professional identities. Wearing clothing that is deemed “appropriate” in distinct spaces provides access to jobs, networks and, for many of us, respect and dignity.
In my research published in Gender and Society, I interviewed men of all types, across a range of ages, races, sexualities, occupations. I wanted to understand how their clothes challenged or reinforced cultural ideas about masculinity. My interviews took place in men’s homes where they showed me their clothes and described their memories of them.
When my participants opened up their closets each morning, they asked themselves a series of questions: Who were they going to meet? What activities were they going to do? What spaces did they plan on visiting? All of these men picked clothing that best allowed them to display their understanding of dominant masculine norms. They believed the clothes they wore would help them get the rewards they sought at the events and outings they attended, or protect them from being harassed and attacked.
All these interviews were conducted before COVID-19. Many of us now do not go to different physical spaces each day but are primarily confined to our homes. Our social interactions are limited to Zoom. In this new social world, how might my participants decide what to wear each day? And what might be the impact of their decisions on the ways in which they trouble and reinforce masculine ideals?
Our digital interactions present all of us with a new set of considerations when we open up our closets each morning. Our colleagues and friends will no longer observe our fully dressed bodies but instead primarily view our shoulders and faces. This narrowed frame poses two major consequences. Given my research focuses on men and masculinity, I will speculate about men specifically.
First, clothing that adorns the top halves of men’s bodies might take on greater importance.
Some men might still opt to wear a shirt and tie to establish their class position, but as the pandemic rages on, they might loosen up their workwear. As men work from home, they are likely to be multitasking. They work but also cook meals, homeschool kids, cope with anxiety. Perhaps wearing a suite becomes impractical while multi-taking, even if that includes video meetings.
Second, hair and skin might take on a heightened role.
Kirsten Barber charts professional white-collar men’s consumption of high-end salon services—from hair colouring to brow tweezing. Barber finds that these men engage in beauty work to construct their “professional” identity. For them, keeping their hair coiffed, browsshaped and skin smooth establishes masculine power. A virtual world might mean that these services become more important for the construction of middle-class masculinity, as stylists now offer virtual appointments to guide patrons through hair coloring and brow tweezing.
Beauty work might become even more important because participants now see their faces during each and every digital meeting. It becomes easy to focus on how their cheek bones, complexions and eyebrows appear on the screen. For many men, observations about their faces might be a new discovery because beauty work unlike body work is traditionally gendered feminine and avoided by men.
Make-up might take on a new role for establishing a professional masculine identity in a Zoom-centered world, but men of color and Black men in particular will have limited options. Men who are balding might become more susceptible to hair growth pill subscription boxes designed to reduce hair loss and older men to anti-aging potions. Even Zoom now offers digital filters to instantly reduce the appearance of winkles.
Yet the loosening up of workwear could provide benefits. Mainstream menswear is designed for thin and non-disabled bodies. Clothing patterns are scaled up for larger sizes or adapted for physically disabled wearers. As a result, clothing often fails to comfortably fit fat and disabled men, if it’s available at all. They are often forced to spend hundreds of dollars on custom clothes for office jobs and other formal events. But in a digital world where clothes matter less, these men might no longer need formal and fashionable clothes to shore up masculine power in certain social spaces.
Perhaps some femme and queer men will feel less pressure to code switch. If they are no longer commuting around the city, they face less risk of violence. They might just feel freer and safer to wear whatever they want, including heels all day long.
While this pandemic has shifted how men dress each day, it is unlikely that the role of appearance has changed. The difference between this moment and before COVID-19 is that the contents of men’s bathroom vanities might become more important than the contents of their bedroom closets when it comes to displaying a masculine identity.
What I find intriguing is this shift from the full body to the face in our self-presentation. This may reduce ableism, fat phobia and other oppressions based on visible cues because others only see one’s shoulders and face. Clothes don’t matter as much now. But the deep assumptions and attitudes that keep inequities structurally alive are not being challenged. They remain in place, just outside the purview of the Zoom frame. Some men might benefit in the short-term, but when they meet in-person once again, dominant masculine ideals could become even more entrenched because digital spaces have masked, not transformed, existing forms of discrimination.
Ben Barry is Chair and Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada). His research explores masculinities and fashion at the intersections of fat and disability.