What makes a man?

Constantly turning his own fashion faux pas into an art form, guest writer Benjamen Judd looks at how clothes can make or break the modern day man.

How do we to define Australian masculinity these days?

Is it the traditional burly, hard-drinking, hard-working blue-collar blokes that once dominated beer advertisements, the suits, ties and cuff-links of the executive class, or something else altogether?

The trappings and accessories of masculinity can shift dramatically in just a few decades, and currently most men would rather be seen in a skirt than be caught wearing anything from their girlfriends’ repertoire of make-up tricks (despite the best efforts of young Hollywood stars like Zac Efron and the Jonas brothers).

But go back several hundred years and any man worth his wig wouldn’t have left the house without a fine dusting of powder across his cheeks. And it was once traditional to dress young boys in pink, while it was the girls who wore blue. So while it may take something as simple as a Y-chromosome to make you a male, what it takes to express manhood is something much more nuanced. And as subject to fashion and trends as getting an undercut or tribal tattoo.

But why does it keep on changing?

“The male body has always been a site of social critique and it has always been a commodity,” says Dr. Anna Hickey-Moody, a lecturer on Gender and Cultural Studies at Sydney University.

“Changes in the style of masculinity that is popular in the media reflect the changing nature of men’s work. While once most men worked physically, and to be a successful man you needed to be strong, now the skills required to pay the bills are not necessarily indicated by muscle mass or height.

"The popular aesthetic feminisation of masculinity aligns with the fact that business masculinity and the ‘soft’ labour performed by businessmen is literally the most valuable form of masculinity in our globalised world."

Over the past forty years, the image of the male ideal has changed so fast and so often that each decade seemed to produce its own version of what it meant to be a man with its own examples of traditional masculinity.

Modelling as a career, attention to grooming and a moderate interest in clothing – all once considered typically feminine interests – are now completely acceptable options for the modern man.

So perhaps the best way of answering this question is to examine the cultural icons of masculinity as they've changed through the ages?

The two infamous poster boys of the 70’s, Burt Reynolds and Jack Thompson, sum up the image of that alpha-male that still lingers when we think of what is traditionally masculine. Here were two men who measured their manhood by the thickness of their moustache and the quality of their chest pelts. Both Reynolds and Thompson made history by posing nude for separate women’s magazines in almost identical poses – neither of them had the abs of Marky Mark or the melting pout of Brad Pitt. But what they lacked in these departments they made up for with follicular greatness.

During the following decade (the much celebrated Eighties), Tom Selleck still held the banner high for men who proudly wore their Y-chromosomes on the chest and upper lip. But there was a new generation of blow-waved, fashion conscious males on the horizon. Movies and bands were portraying a new breed of men that were not afraid to wear something other than denim and t-shirts and knew that mousse was also a hair product, not just a French dessert. George Michael and Wham!, the boys of Duran Duran and New Kids on the Block also helped keep sales in hairspray high.

The nineties produced a peculiar polarisation of the male image – the suave, slick and chiseled male model to one side. And the oily-haired, unwashed rocker on the other. And despite their differences, these two arms of the man-movement in fact had more in common than they had in opposition. Men were no longer being depicted as blue-collar heroes but as being part of the fashion movement. Kurt Cobain, first male supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg, Marky Mark and Anthony Kiedis fought for dominance on walls and billboards.

The 2000s and beyond – with the global domination of the internet making access to international music even easier, male imagery became even more diverse in the new millennium. Opulent rap artists full of bravado such as Jay-Z, Kanye West and Puff Daddy/P-Diddy/Sean Combs were as popular as metrosexuals David Beckham who launched new hairstyle trends almost every other week. Knowing your Gucci from your Prada became as important as knowing your spanner from your wrench.

It has only really been in the past few years that we have seen a truly different kind of male image being celebrated, one that is almost an antithesis to those hyper-cast representations of men in the past and one that probably comes as closer to the concept of traditional masculinity than any other image. Enter the Everyman – he of the average looks and the average body and the average wage who embraces his complete mediocrity with a good-natured sense of humour.

Jason Sudeikis, Jason Segal and Jason Bateman are making the rest of us feel better about our slight paunch. “Everyday blokes have always been hot,” says Hickey-Moody. “The boy next door is as appealing to most girls as 'the girl next door’ is to most boys – give us the run of the mill guy any day! You want someone you can hang out with and relate to – not a David Beckham.”