Thursday, March 14, 2013

Men's Underwear and Symbolism

"Wearing a corset certainly changes your state of mind."
Radha Mitchell, Australian actress

It’s queer how a man’s humble underwear can symbolize so much…

Back when the world was young, and so was I, I took a college communications class. One day the teacher tried to show us a short Oscar-winning documentary, Neighbours, on the terribly grave issue of international peace. Unfortunately, it was hard for us to “relate,” as we kept laughing and laughing at how the two neighbours were wearing such wide legged pants…

Looking back, I can see we didn’t mind wearing clothes from our grandparents, such as top hats, waistcoats or “faded feathers from salvation army counters”; and we didn’t mind wearing the buckskin jackets of our childhood—we just didn’t want to dress like our parents. Today I still wince when I first see some young men wearing wide pants, nerd frame glasses and plaid shirts, but then I remember: They aren’t dressing like my father—they’re dressing like their grandfathers. To them it’s OK, a scattered few even wear fedoras: on them it looks “retro.”

You can’t take fashion too seriously; it’s a gut thing: if ever I buy a businessman’s trench coat, complete with epaulets, I’m not going to insist it include, as many coats do, a “real” loop for my pistol lanyard. I still get a little miffed during every stampede when people talk of dressing like a “real” cowboy, or when some fool in the bar tells me my bandana isn’t knotted like a “real” cowboy’s bandana. After all, I would never tell a civilian his trendy khaki isn’t like a real soldier.

Personal fashion can be frivolous, and also “the personal is political”: At the end of the day, fashion may carry a freight load of symbolism. Underwear too.

When I was a member of the longhaired “younger generation,” a.k.a. the “now generation,” a generation uninterested in historical films where the characters had short hair, a generation that tweaked the hair length of young doctors on the TV show M.A.S.H.,—but not for the “older generation” guy Colonel Potter—I was then wearing my own hair proudly short. I was proudly in the service, at a base that is now, alas, defunct: CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Currie Barracks.

Of course none of us young bucks would be caught dead looking like our fathers. One day an older corporal was saying how over at the quartermaster stores you could still buy a great coat. A fan of romantic nostalgia, I went over to see, and found myself eying some olive drab boxer shorts. … not to look like the dreaded “older generation,” but for nostalgia, to be like a young World War II hero. At the time we were all wearing thin synthetic baggy “combat pants,” like green pajamas, and…well… I guess I was a leader, for soon the other guys were buying these shorts too.

“Have you heard?” someone asked me with outrage, “Pelletier was wearing his boxers out on a Friday night! What if he gets lucky? As soon as he takes down his jeans a girl will burst out laughing!”

A few years later I was a civilian, lounging in the university drama student’s lounge, spying on them actually, enjoying their freedom and energy, when a short woman with short dark hair, a real “cutie pattutie” came in wearing olive drab shorts. The other actors were intrigued; they asked her, and she explained she was wearing men’s boxer shorts. At the time, as a starving student, with old jeans and old underwear, I was tempted to get a laugh by pulling out my thick green waistband... But they didn’t know me, and I judged at the time it would not quiiiite have been funny. And besides, only a crazy nerd would ever wear boxers.

About a decade later I was doing a one-year certificate program in professional writing—and yes, some peers wrote of dressing like a "real" cowboy. Short hair was back in style (Gay men had been first) and the most timid generation X’ers were starting to wear bathing trunks like Grandpa’s, called “board shorts,” far down their legs. Poor guys: They might as well walk with cold seaweed wrapped around their legs. At least the trunks were more colorful than Grandpa would have been able to afford. This was on the prairies where no one had ever seen a surfboard in real life. One night, downtown at the bar, one of my writing classmates told me she could always tell whether a boy was wearing boxer style or jockey style. Oops! So maybe a decade earlier females could tell I was being a nerd—Perish the thought! A week later, chatting with three young gay males, I asked. One guy said he noticed, the other two didn’t… Since then, by the way, my pretty forever-young classmate has settled into granny style underwear.

As for me, I had never noticed: not because I was a typical oblivious male, but because I was so uptight, if not homophobic, and so I would have just died if anyone caught me looking… Yes, we males have a lot of double standards. And liberation does not come handed on a silver platter.

I’m not the only one who’s uptight. Recently, in this best of all centuries, I was inside an outdoors store buying some of that newfangled sweat resistant Marino wool. Some of the long underwear was looser, while some was snugger, for ice and rock climbing. As you know, for snugger clothes in general, just as when you wear slim cowboy jeans for horseback riding, the way to go is jockey style underwear. My young outdoors salesman, leading me over to the briefs, was fine with boxer style, but made a screwed up face at what he called the “grape smuggler” jockey style. “I’m a baby boomer,” I said using my crotchety old man voice, so as not to sound like I was being personally judgmental of the young man, “and that’s what I buy.” But wow, I could sure tell he was uptight.

I daresay young women his age are uptight too. My guess is that a young man of today doesn’t dare pull down his wide pants on a lucky Friday night while wearing jockey style, lest the modern lady laugh at him. Whatever happened to the younger generation’s revolution against old age and being uptight? I wonder: Does this means the “women’s liberation” of my youth was for naught? Did my generation endure protests, tear gas and derisions, only for 21st century women to say, “I mostly believe in equal rights, but not the goal of equality” or “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.”?

Well. I have it on good authority that if you dare to dial up your light of consciousness, dare to see and know, then you too will believe in feminism. Of course, who wants to endure a short sharp knock, feeling shocked into being strident?  It’s easier to only see the world dimly, easier to perceive men’s underwear, and women’s corsets, as being totally devoid of any symbolism.

Sean Crawford
Forever in blue jeans,
Relaxed fit... but not high waist
March 2013
Incidentally, I essay about timidly deciding between boxer and jockey style bathing suits, in August 2013

I envision a man, like young John Kennedy, up on a soap box, giving a speech:

"There are those who say that women have had full and equal rights ever since back in the 20th century: I say, "Let them go to a lady with the credibility of being a rich successful capitalist.

"There are those who say we no longer need feminism: I say, 'Let them go to the fifth most powerful woman in the world, according to a Forbes list, Sheryl Sandberg.'

"There are those who say women in the working world are really, really close to equality—all they need to do is stay silent, keep their heads down, and pretend there's no need for feminism: I say, 'Let them go discover how Sandberg's book, subtitled "Women, Work and the Will to Lead," is NOT from the 1970's but from this year, 2013…' The title is Lean In.
(With help from Nell Scoval, her book is in plain English: The oodles of footnote-documents proving lack of equality are relegated to a separate back section.)

"Until all women, rich and poor, business and nonbusiness, have equal rights, "Ich bin ien feminist.""

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