How the Internet Changed Menswear

There was a time not long ago when guys who cared about fashion were a silent minority whose main source of information was the monthly drop of magazines or retail catalogues they would read in solitude.

The internet changed that. By the 2000s, men were congregating in online forums where they could discuss anything from Japanese denim to traditional tailoring and getting exposure to designers through runway images on The explosion of social media turned menswear from a niche hobby into an online phenomenon, complete with its own hashtag — #menswear. Although Instagram launched 2010, back then the action was on Tumblr. It practically turned personal style into a competition.

“Thanks to Tumblr’s image-first, context-second interface, #menswear created a well-heeled monster: The modern day peacock — a man who dresses for the Internet, not himself,” Jian DeLeon, then a fashion writer and today the men’s fashion director at Nordstrom, wrote for GQ in 2013.

Since, the internet has continued to exert its influence on menswear, letting guys find community in clothing but also fostering a mentality that prioritises scoring points online.

Derek Guy has had a front row seat. He has been a fixture of online menswear communities for more than a decade, contributing to forums and blogs while writing on his own site (called Die, Workwear!). An astute observer of the culture around clothing, he recently became one of social media’s best-known menswear commentators after he was algorithmically propelled into users’ timelines following changes to Twitter’s content-recommendation engine in the wake of its purchase by Elon Musk.

BoF spoke to Guy about how the internet has changed the way men approach fashion, offered craftspeople a lifeline and made scoring internet points a substitute for dressing well.

BoF: It seems like online culture is a distinct thing that’s shaping how we dress and conversations around fashion. How do you see online culture influencing the way men dress?

Derek Guy: The internet has reshaped how we see ourselves as groups. It’s not just that I see myself as a resident of this particular neighbourhood, work at this specific place, or I’m a fan of this team. My group identity may also be part of this hobby that I picked up on the internet. I might see myself as a ‘denim head,’ even though there are no denim heads in my physical community. I will buy certain jeans to impress my online friends that are in this denim group and then post photos to get likes among this group.

That also spills over to physical spaces. [Denim retailer] Self Edge built a business partly because of forums like Super Future and Styleforum and blogs that educated people on Japanese selvedge denim.

BoF: You recently wrote a piece on your site about a similar idea, which is how the internet is helping to save bespoke shoemaking. What role is the internet playing there?

DG: The short answer is that the internet has allowed people to discover craftspeople independent of large companies. The rise of ready-to-wear meant fewer people buying bespoke shoes, so over time, the number of craftspeople in London making shoes declined and the people left ended up getting consolidated into these large firms. Moving into the 20th century, these large firms basically dominated the market. I think the big firms are not that great anymore. My theory is that’s because they can’t find enough skilled craftspeople to make the output necessary.

The [crafts]people that are left have ended up becoming independents. They strike out on their own, and they have only been able to survive because enthusiasts who are really particular about the quality of a garment — these are guys who read about shoemaking and tailoring and get obsessed with whether the chest is really hand-padded or machine-padded, whether the stitch count is right on a shoe — they end up going to forums or they find these makers through blogs or Instagram accounts.

BoF: There’s an argument that the internet has actually increased appreciation of craft. Do you think that’s the case, or were these craft obsessives always out there and the internet just made them more visible?

DG: There have obviously always been people who have appreciated craft. The thing is, when you read many old accounts — and I totally recognise these people are earnest in their appreciation for craft — they are still not as technical as the writing done today. When you read shoe arguments online, they are nuts. I’ve seen literally 15-year-old rivalries online over the issue of gemming [a footwear construction technique]. When you read the older accounts of craft, they tend to focus on the magical experience of bespoke: the tailor wrapping the measuring tape around your body and ‘Cary Grant went here’ and these vague references to quality and craftsmanship. I think the internet has exposed more people to craft and given people a deeper appreciation for craft.

BoF: There’s also a counter-narrative that says everything is designed for Instagram now. You have to make things that stand out and subtle details aren’t valued as they once were. Does that coexist alongside this approach where people get really obsessive about details?

DG: What you said is broadly true. How that manifests in streetwear or high fashion may be different, [but in] the ready-to-wear shoe community, instead of buying ‘boring’ brown and black Oxfords, which is what I prefer, people will buy green alligator skin and red hippo Oxfords, which I think is just Instagram candy but not wearable in an outfit.

There’s been this trend among guys who are really into bespoke shoes where you get a seamless heel. If you look at most dress shoes, certainly in ready-to-wear but even a lot of bespoke, [on] the heel there will be a seam that goes up the back. In bespoke, you can get the shoe made without that seam, so guys will do that and post photos. Another one is a seamless back on a suit or sport coat. It’s actually a downside — if you’re talking practical tailoring effects, you should not get a seamless back. But if you’re talking about posting online and getting internet points, you should get a seamless back because then you can say, ‘This shows off the craft.’

BoF: That gets into something else you’ve written about, which is that online menswear culture is actually affecting taste because products risk becoming these context-less objects separated from their original use. What effect does that have?

DG: I think about that often. On the internet, everything is enclosed in four borders. It’s a photo that exists on your screen. There are a lot of issues with this. Fifteen years ago, a lot of online menswear discussions were about how to dress well. Over time, that has devolved into more and more collecting. People end up reading about these certain details [and] it creates a curiosity that can only be satisfied by experience. You’ll buy it to experience it, and then that satisfies your curiosity. Now it’s just a collectible item that you post online for internet points.

The biggest discussions are about watches and shoes and the collectibility of these things: the prices, the details, posting these items singularly online. When you look at watch discussions, nobody ever posts a full photo of how the watch works with the outfit. They just show the wrist. The danger is that we are treating these objects like baseball cards and showing off these things online, but they have no relationship to our real lives.

BoF: In my experience of online menswear culture you can see the same phenomenon playing out elsewhere, too, like with sneakers and streetwear or high-end designer fashion.

DG: I’m conscious of it because it can come off as snobby and judgmental, but it’s something worth criticising because one of the things that doesn’t get published online are the stories of when people end up offloading these items. They don’t get posted because people are no longer bragging about it. I think it’s worth criticising because I don’t think that it’s a smart use of money, and I also don’t think that it leads to a happy outcome. I recognise that all of us who are into clothing have massive wardrobes and we all have clothes we don’t wear. I don’t think this is a unique problem among collectors. But it helps to rein it back in a little bit and to think, ‘How does this create a good outfit? How does it relate to my lifestyle?’

BoF: Has clothing’s place within a person’s lifestyle changed in itself?

DG: When I was growing up, clothes were still important, but they were secondary to another interest. You were into skating, hip-hop, punk or surf, and those groups had their own dress norms. Within that group, that’s the way you’re supposed to dress. Over time, fashion has become the hobby and the activity is shopping.

BoF: This existed to some degree before the internet, of course. People would go to stores and shop for fun.

DG: Before, at least you would go outside to an area and walk around. Now shopping takes place on the same digital real estate where you do your work. The excitement and the enjoyment is just getting the tracking number, then following the tracking number and the package has arrived. It’s a difficult thing because I’m careful about criticising this. It feeds into this narrative that fashion is frivolous, whereas I think fashion is actually quite important and meaningful to people’s lives. But I also think it’s important to recognise that this is a very weird part of fashion.

BoF: You’ve been participating in online culture for a while. Has it changed?

DG: Fifteen years ago, I think there was a little bit more consensus on how we all wanted to dress. If you happened to have stumbled into online menswear culture, you would’ve fallen into a small network of blogs, and all of these blogs are writing about certain aesthetics, like Ivy, workwear, tailoring. That would inform your taste and shape your interest and give you a baseline of how to dress. Now there’s not as much consensus. You can dress in Rick Owens or streetwear or bespoke tailoring.

BoF: Has the internet contributed to the popularity of fashion among guys today? When I was a kid, if you were a guy, it was not cool to pay attention to fashion, if there was even really a way to do it. Now I see teenagers who can rattle off the names of fashion designers. Does that happen without the internet?

DG: Part of it is about changing gender norms. I think younger people are less hung up on whether or not men are allowed to like clothing. When I was young, fashion was much more strongly coded as a feminine interest. It still is, but I think younger people are less hung up about that gender norm.

The internet has allowed a lot of people to discuss clothing, to find community in it, and has taken away some of the stigma. I would layer that on top of generational changes. There is part of me that sometimes is shocked when I see college students wearing or talking about Balenciaga and Raf Simons. When I was young, there wasn’t as much pressure to wear such expensive items. But I do think the internet has allowed people to share this interest.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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