Friday, November 28, 2008

Staying Abreast of Men's Fashions

Y'all know that I teach women's and gender studies. You know I'd take to the streets for the right of all human beings to express themselves in whatever genderqueer manner they like - and to be safe and respected while doing so. That's a basic principle for me.

And yet ... the allure of some things just mystifies me. Exhibit A: Holly of Self-Portrait As recently linked to this feature on bras being marketed to men in Japan. (There's video but I couldn't see a way to embed it, so you gotta click and go there.)

As Holly said: "I don't know what to say." I'm not so sure I do, either, but I'll try anyway.

First, this strikes me as the latest example of the viral nature of capitalism, especially where bodies are concerned. The beauty-and-body market for women is so swamped, it's hard to find a new niche. Compared to women, men's bodies haven't been nearly so thoroughly shaped and fashioned, at least not in commodified ways. Enter the metrosexual, who spends a larger chunk of his budget on fashions, hair products, and the like than does the typical dude.

And it's not just masculinity that's in flux. Bras, too, have evolved tremendously since their invention just about a century ago. The bra emerged as the corset was on the wane, but it took decades to really catch on. For the flapper styles of the 1920s, the goal was to flatten, not support. In the 1930s, cup sizes became standardized and bras began to be sold as a ready-made garment, but they still weren't universal. Only in the postwar era, with its buxom icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, did bras become a staple in American women's wardrobe. By the 1970s, bras were in decline; though feminists didn't actually burn them, some women stopped wearing them. The bra made a comeback again in the buttoned-down 1980s. By the 1990s you saw bras being worn as outerwear - and the Wonderbra was born.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, the history of the bra is primarily the history of its commercialization. Once the postwar market had been saturated, bra manufacturers cast about for a new market. They found one in young girls who hadn't yet begun to develop. Allying with physicians, they convinced mothers and their preteen daughters that for the sake of health and beauty, girls needed to start wearing bras even before they had breasts.

So I'm inclined to see Japan's new man-bra the intersection of the metrosexual with a saturated but always ravenous body-shaping industry. (an irreverent and not always PC blog on Japanese culture) notes that these bras are most likely targeting metrosexuals with transgender tendencies, since the bras are really too petite to be targeting full-fledged transsexual or transgendered persons. That seems pretty plausible to me: a man who's truly trying to pass as a woman won't settle for a AAA cup.

There may be something specifically Japanese about this product, too. Take a look at an ad for it (swiped from, which has more along these lines):

I totally don't understand Japanese culture beyond what I learned from the movie Lost in Translation, but I'm fascinated by how the ads for this product harness conspicuously Western models. I know that this is a common trick in Japan (and the whole premise for, which chronicles this tactic gone hilariously wrong). This makes me wonder if - within Japanese culture - transnational masculine beauty standards might somehow grant greater license for transgendered behavior. Or if Caucasian models just give the product a certain metropolitan cachet. I'd love to know more.

However you slice it, the advertising for this man-bra engages in some major gender-bending. provides a translation:
Times like these call for a Men’s Bra:
  • Even us guys want to know how a woman feels!
  • We want to reel in our emotions! (lit. “strain/tighten our emotions”)
  • I have the body of a man, but I’m a guy who feels like a little girl!
  • I want to remember a gentle feeling.
  • I need support for my chest!
  • There are sure to be many reasons, but the most important thing is to feel gentle/tender.
So far, there seems to be a modest market for wanting to "know how a woman feels." About 300 of these had been sold at the point when this hit the media a couple of weeks ago. That's not a huge number, of course, but it's definitely more than zero. I'm hoping that most of the buyers are hoping to "feel gentle/tender" rather than "like a little girl"; that diminutive sort of creeps me out, to be honest.

I guess my feelings about this are similar to my reaction to makeup for men: cool for those who really are into it. But at the same time, I'm glad my own mate won't hope to find a man-bra under the Christmas tree - and not just because airmail won't get it there on time. I may teach gender studies, but I guess I'm just kind of limited that way. Then again, one of the main things I've learned from feminism is to honor desires - my own and others - as long as they do no harm.

But the cat-bra? Now that's where I, personally, draw the line.

From I Can Has Cheezburger?


John Pine said...

It's titillation disguised as bravado.

Sungold said...

Heh. Thanks for the uplifting thought, John.

John Pine said...

Well no one can accuse me of not believing in support.