Legendary blues man B. B. King once crooned ‘I’ve got a good mind to give up living and go shopping instead’. No doubt he would appreciate the irony of recent findings that the men of Britain are taking his advice and doing just that.
Despite the economic slump, Britain’s retailers have benefitted from a surge in male consumerism over the past decade, but the change is more radical than it at first appears. Men aren’t just spending more, they’re spending it on the sorts of things you might not expect.
Beauty products, for instance.
The days when the term ‘male grooming’ meant making sure your fly was done up before going outside are long gone. We now get to choose between tea tree aftershave, organic moisturiser, exfoliating pumice stones, sparkly bath bombs and an array of deodorants that purport to transform women into slavering nymphomaniacs.
In 1990, only four per cent of men claimed to regularly use a skincare product. That figure has been climbing ever since and is expected to reach 50 per cent by 2015.
And it’s not just toiletries. The traditional male wardrobe of jeans and T-shirt has expanded to include (whisper it)… accessories. Man bags, designer belts and sunglasses, once the emblems of self-conscious metrosexuality, are now firmly embedded in the mainstream.
So what happened to cause such a change in the male psyche? According to Parisian fashion journalist Mark Tungate, we shouldn’t be surprised at all. ‘Deep down, all men have a streak of vanity,’ he claims. And he should know, as the author of ‘Marketing To Men’, an appraisal of the shifting attitudes and persistent difficulties of persuading male consumers to part with their cash.
Because, despite men’s newfound confidence on the high street, they still lag far behind women in terms of annual spending on clothes and beauty products, a fact that troubles many of the leading fashion brands. Rest assured, they’re working hard to remedy the situation and male-focussed advertising is, in itself, a growth industry.
But the stereotypes that men appear to be moving away from are, ironically enough, still upheld in these adverts. A few basic images predominate, no matter what the product – fast cars, rock hard abs and attractive young women in not many clothes. This last example was taken to its logical conclusion a few years ago by the Danish underwear brand JBS, whose slogan, ‘Because men don’t want to look at naked men’ accompanies glossy shots of tall leggy models, naked except for boxer shorts.
At this point I have to hold up my hands and confess that fashion has never really been my thing. You could put me in the smartest clothes money can buy and I’ll still make them look as though I’m only wearing them because they’re the last clean things I had left. Honestly, I could make Paul Smith look like Primark.
Consequently, I’m all but impervious to the machinations of the ad men. I really don’t care which brand of razor Tiger Woods thinks I should use, and you can show me all the pictures of naked young women you like (no, really, please do!) I’ll still buy my underwear in bargain packs from M&S.
It’s refreshing to know that I’m swimming against the tide of consumerism, but it does mean that I’m part of a dying breed. Smelling of nothing at all may no longer be enough; I’ll have to go around reeking of pomegranate and essential oils, or risk being ostracised.
I try to comfort myself with the thought that, by the time this sort of thing becomes endemic, I’ll be traversing the comfortable plateau of middle age and no one will expect me to keep in step. But will the march of the fashionistas stop when I hit 40? Fashion for older men is the last great untapped market, and I’m sure it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the big-name labels. You only have to step into Cardiff city centre on a Friday night to see ladies of a certain age dressed like Britney Spears. Could men be going the same way?
Just imagine, five years from now the back rooms of pubs across the land could be crammed with old boys wearing dockers with elasticated waists and orthopedic Converse trainers, while they compare piercings and i-phones.
A clothing democracy in which men have as many options as women could be a great and marvelous thing. Just as long as there’s room for a few cardigans and tartan slippers along the way.
Originally a men’s lead article for the Western Mail’s WM Magazine.