At the end of the 18th century an important event occurred in the history of men’s clothing. Men changed their mode of dress from the sartorially splendid and elaborate to a more restrained sense of style which continues to this day with the dark suit, white shirt and subdued tie. This change in the appearance of men’s clothing is called The Great Renunciation and historians believe that the origin and reason for this change is the French Revolution of 1789. One of the functions of male sartorial display was to designate the wealth and social status of the nobility in the ancien régime. With the Revolution and its slogan of Liberty, Equality Fraternity, these distinctions of privilege came to an end and a new mode of dress was required and thus, The Great Renunciation took place.
So, in contrast to the still ubiquitous dark suit which began with the French Revolution, in what context is it permissible for men to dress like peacocks and display an luxurious dress sense like Comte d’Angiviller as painted by Greuze. Well, there are drag queens, but this choice is not quite right. Perhaps, some rock stars would qualify, but maybe Ziggy Stardust was the last and greatest of that breed. There is still a great sartorial display in the military, particularly in dress uniforms and especially those uniforms worn by European soldiers. Just think of the uniform of the Beefeaters in the Tower of London or the Foot Guards that protect Buckingham Palace. What man wouldn’t want to wear an 18 inch tall bearskin hat made from the real skins of Canadian Brown Bears with a striking scarlet tunic and a white buff leather belt? Does the hat come in white? I think that would be more slimming.
Apparently now, male figure skating is another modern arena in which men can wear lavish and elaborate outfits that are all about peacock display and over the top visual appeal. Like the soldiers that guard Buckingham Palace these outfits are task oriented clothing. One wouldn’t see these clothes on your average Wall Street executive donning the dark suit of The Great Renunciation.
It should be noted that I am not a die-hard fan of men’s figure skating. I will watch it now that the Winter Olympics are on, but if there’s a Golden Girls rerun on another channel, there is no contest. And for full disclosure, I have been to a few ice shows, but I’m not a fanatic nor was going to such a spectacle my idea.
I am, however, interested in the way in which same-sex desire is deployed within mass culture and the popular media. A January 17th article in the New York Times on male figure skating costumes entitled “Birds of a Feather Wear Bad Costumes Together” not only deploys a fairly obvious undercurrent of homosexuality, but it also manages to register a trace of homophobia. This homophobia is combined with the idea that same-sex desire is in a sense inimical to the United States and harkens from somewhere outside its borders.
The article uses several “code” words to imply homosexuality without ever naming it (The love that dare not speak its name) through its descriptions of the skater’s flamboyant costumes which the story concludes is bad for the sport. First, the title “Birds of a Feather” immediately refers to the film La Cage aux Folles with its gay narrative and outrageous drag queen character and her equally fabulous outfits. Other connotations of homosexuality appear throughout the article. The Broadway musical “Gypsy” is referenced as if the costumes of male figure skaters belong more to the realm of the burlesque and its strippers rather than on the ice. The costume department of The Metropolitan Opera House is also cited as a way of describing the relatively new showy costumes for male skaters and we all know how much certain ‘mos love opera and a good Broadway musical.
Old time skating veterans, Jef Billings, a costume designer for such skaters as Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming, and Dick Buttons who won the gold medal in figure skating in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics wearing a “classic tuxedolike costume” comment on the new costume trend and they are not happy. (There is certainly a generation gap operating here.) Billings states, “I think it’s hurting the sport. Sometimes you feel like you’ve gone to the circus instead of figure skating.” Similarly Bottoms states, “Sometimes I feel caught in a wind tunnel in the costume department of The Metropolitan Opera House.”
Billings would like to see the skaters dressed in a “sports uniform, so the technical skill of a skater can be judged simply according to athleticism, line and technique.” The implication of Billings’ statement is that the fussy, extravagant costumes seen today “feminize” the male skaters and their abilities. The corporeal wholeness of the skater (masculinity within the dominant fiction) as well as what the article terms his line and his performance (athleticism and technique) are compromised or disrupted by the costume he chooses to wear. And indeed, the question should be why do current male skaters adopt these type of costumes if they really take away from the skill of their performance? Obviously, they have control over what outfit they wear on the ice and if they want to be a peacock on ice, why not?
The NY Times article answers this question as well. “The current outlandish phase is an emulation of the Russians and their one-piece, rhinestone studded costumes.” According to Billings, Aleksei Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic champion wore “more ruffles than a Marie Osmond Collector doll.” So, this corruption and feminization of United States male figure skaters comes from outside the country. This sentiment is not quite xenophobia, but it relates historically to how homosexuality/homophobia were deployed by the nation state as a way to promote its own nationalism and psychologically attack its enemies. For example, in 19th century France male same-sex desire was referred to as “le vice allemand.” This link between homosexuality and Germany intensified during the 1908 Eulenberg Affair when the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II was beset by a homosexual scandal.
What I am suggesting with this French/German historical example is that the NY Times article explains the ornate costumes now being worn by American male figure skaters as being precipitated by the Russians, by a foreign other. In this explanation, there is a collapse in a sense between foreign and homosexuality in which same-sex desire is seen as something which comes from outside the United States to threaten or at least feminize and compromise American male figure skating, masking the line, athleticism and technique of the skaters because of their extravagant Russian inspired costumes.
The leading American proponent of this costume trend, the grand peacock of male figure skating, is of course Johnny Weir. Weir says in regard to his outfits, “Too much is never enough.” His Olympic short program costume was a dazzling mixture of black, pink, sheer fabric, ruffles and straps. According to the NY Times article, “The skating world is of two minds about Weir; drawn to his singular personality and graceful style, concerned that his showiness will overwhelm the appeal of his performance.” To me this statement sounds like straight people (and some gays) telling certain non-heterosexuals to tone it down and not be so flamboyant in order to gain equality or perhaps a gold medal.
In writing this post, I realize that some readers may think I have overanalyzed the Times article, that I am being too sensitive, too queer. I would argue that as a queer/vext individual I am very attuned to the way in which homosexuality is portrayed and deployed within popular culture. The article in the Times has a tinge of homophobia and it also plays on an old strategy of finding a foreign other (in this case our old enemies, the Russians) to blame for the changes in the costuming of male figure skaters and the dire consequences that holds for the (masculine) integrity of those skaters. In the end, for me, the more peacocks on the ice, the better.