California strikes. Manhattan is becoming Malibu. Once, in the long-gone Mad Men days, it was considered de rigueur for New Yorkers to wear a hat and gloves in town. Now dress codes have devolved to the point where folks wear fleecy slippers on the subway, flip-flops to the ballet, running tights for every occasion, repurposed pajamas as daywear and, recently, very little at all.
We are referring here to a curious trend among men in the city to go walking about without shirts.
Note, for instance, recent tabloid pictures showing Orlando Bloom strolling through TriBeCa with his dog on a leash and son in a stroller. The British actor was dressed in shower shoes, a baseball cap and cargo shorts slung low enough to brand-check his red briefs and to see a solar tattoo inked south of his navel. And that was about all.
Sure it was hot. Temperatures had been hovering in the 90s for seven days running. Furnace blasts radiated off sidewalks. To stand on a subway platform felt like getting too close to a Weber grill.
Naked above the waist, Bloom was doing what a sensible person might to stay cool, if that person lived on the Pacific Coast Highway and was headed to Malibu Country Mart for an iced cappuccino.
But Bloom was not in the 90265 ZIP code. And historically, inhabitants even of laid-back 10013 have not been in the habit of walking around semi-naked. Those were the old days, a time before everywhere one went in the city men saw men who’d lost their shirts.
There, on Bastille Day, was a shirtless guy checking out the windows at Bergdorf Goodman; there, on Lafayette Street one Tuesday morning, ambled a shirtless shopper hauling Urban Outfitter bags; there, on the R train, was a rider wearing nothing but jeans and sandals; there, on Astor Place, a cluster of topless men flaunting their abs and pecs.
“I was on my way to the bank and I saw not one, not two, but three guys” walking shirtless across Eighth Street, said Rob Morea, a personal trainer and an owner of Great Jones Fitness in NoHo. As might be expected of someone in his line of work, Morea’s own physique resembles that of a bendable action figure. Despite that, he would never go shirtless in New York, he said. “It doesn’t feel right. It’s like going to a business meeting in your underwear.”
It is all a predictable part of the dressing-down of America, said Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“It’s great we live in a democratic society, but we’ve lost all sense of decorum and occasion,” Mears said. “To be on Fifth Avenue is now about the same as being on the Coney Island boardwalk.”
To display your unclad torso on Fifth Avenue is also, she added, to give proof of the proposition that in the evolutionary arc of masculinity, men are no longer the oglers; they are the object of the gaze.
Signs of this are everywhere: on Broadway, where male frontal nudity is now so commonplace that it evokes fewer cries of outrage than yawns; on television, where bare-chested male stars are standard fare both on shows like Hawaii Five-O, where shirtless himbos might be expected, and on series like Chicago Fire; and in advertising, where male pulchritude is used to hawk everything from Diet Coke to salad dressing.
Even this is not new, precisely. Isn’t the shirtless landscaper featured in the current steamy Diet Coke commercials merely an updated version of the shirtless construction worker Lucky Vanous portrayed in similarly racy ads in 1994? And isn’t the campy boy-toy played by Anderson Davis in the Kraft Zesty salad dressing ad campaign just a 30-second version of the male stripper Channing Tatum portrayed in last year’s blockbuster Magic Mike?
That Madison Avenue has finally gotten around to objectifying men’s bodies was hardly lost on Twitter users. “Amazing how seeing TheZestyGuy makes you want to eat more salad!” KatinaCorrao wrote in a tweet.
It is. And yet what’s disorienting about all the peekaboo, said Mears, is “a blurring of lines,” of decorum and the demarcation between public and private space, lines crossed long ago in places like Southern California, where sweatpants are more common than suits and no one thinks twice about wearing a bikini to go to the mall.
“Reality TV has had an effect here,” Mears said. “I don’t know if there’s much distinction anymore between what you see on television and what we used to call reality.”
In her own New York childhood, the only acceptable urban setting for a shirtless man might have been a city beach, Mears, 52, added. Certainly in an era that now seems definitively kaput, it would have been unthinkable for a man in possession of his senses to walk up Madison Avenue, New York’s great retailing rialto, shirtless on a Friday afternoon.
Yet there on a recent steamy day was Jean-Luc Constant, a boxer and model, standing bare-chested outside the Ralph Lauren store. If Constant’s state of semi-undress did provoke some perplexity among passers-by, he himself was fully nonchalant.
“Maybe it’s because of my profession,” he said. “I don’t really mind being naked at all.”