It’s been a tough couple weeks for the sort of men who crave the male gaze. Anna Silman took an oyster spoon to a former Esquire editor, then Sniff Petrol administered a thorough beating to babbler-slash-photographer-slash-unaccomplished-son-of-accomplished-father Ted Gushue. Both articles lampoon, with various degrees of bitterness, the heavily traveled intersection of cars/watches/clothing/travel that has proven so irresistibly magnetic to so many wealthy and near-to-wealthy men over the years. Silman writes:
What is it about being a fancy man that seems so uniquely joyful? Surely being a fancy woman, or even a fancy child, might have its perks as well. But when I think of the platonic ideal of a career — one that combines intellect and aesthetics, gravitas and iconoclasm, the cerebral and the tactile — being editor of a fancy men’s magazine takes the cake.
SniffPetrol then drops the guillotine on the Gushue parody with the last few questions of his “interview”:
What most surprises people about you?
I guess how humble I am.
Freddie, thank you.
Yes, it’s a 1967 Patek Philippe Caltrava reference 570 in white gold.
We’re all meant to understand that being a “Fancy Man” is somewhere between contemptible and beneath contempt — but why, exactly? What makes the Fancy Man such a figure of fun? Why are we supposed to laugh at Jay Fielden but genuflect before, say, Paul Newman? Every single writer I know responds to the mention of Ted Gushue with “Oh, that guy” — but David E. Davis rode a similar shtick to near-universal acclaim. What’s the difference?
Don’t worry, I’ve figured it out. That’s what you pay me for, right?
If you rattle around the liberal-arts side of a university long enough, you’ll eventually come across the concept of signified and signifier. It’s a simple idea on its face. Ford’s “Blue Oval” is a signifier. It’s just a drawing, a badge, a picture, with no intrinsic worth of its own. If you arranged to e-mail a Ford logo to the aliens of Alpha Centauri, they wouldn’t have any use for it.
Here on Earth, however, the Blue Oval stands for — it signifies — everything associated with Ford. The man himself. The Model T, the River Rouge. Jeeps in World War II, GT40s at LeMans. The Explorers that killed people and the F-150 in your driveway. There’s a lot of significance in the Blue Oval, enough so that it has financial value of its own. It was used as collateral in the famous 2006 loan that saved the company.
By itself, however, the Blue Oval can’t make a car, win a race, pull a trailer. It’s empty. It is what computer-science people call a “pointer”, which means that it can point you in the direction of real data but it has no meaning in and of itself. (For a rare counter-example of a “pointer” having actual physical existence and usefulness on a computer, read The Story Of Mel.)
We can take this idea of “signifier and signified” all over the place. A West Point ring is a signifier; the officer wearing it is “signified”. If I buy a West Point ring at an estate sale, I don’t automatically become a “ring-knocker” second lieutenant. I’m just a mook wearing a ring I haven’t earned. That Chinese tattoo on your deltoid that you think means “strength” but really means “chicken noodle soup”? That’s an example of signifiers gone wild. The fellow who puts Gulf or Martini race livery on a tired old 911SC? He hasn’t made his car a race-winner by doing that.
‘Twas not always thus. During prehistory, the relationship between signifier and signified was clear and direct. The person in your tribe who possessed the magic bones and potions? He was the shaman. The guy with the biggest shield and spear? He was likely the chieftain. The Roman emperors wore purple, so “wearing the purple” became shorthand for “being the emperor”. Most medieval societies restricted the ownership of certain types or armor and weapons to the people who were entitled by birth or title to use them. If you saw someone wearing a knight’s armor, he was very likely to be a knight. (Which is, of course, the plot of a Heath Ledger movie.)
If you’ve had the pleasure of watching “Downton Abbey”, you know that the nobility are easily distinguished from the regular folks by the extent, quality, and use of their clothing. Lord Grantham wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing an open collar to dinner and his tenants on the pig farm wouldn’t have presumed to dress as if they were “riding to hounds”. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day plays wonderfully on the fading class distinctions of postwar Britain by having a scene in which an elderly butler, traveling across rural England, is mistaken for nobility by the residents of a country tavern. They see his tailored attire and assume that he is someone. Reluctant to give offense, and perhaps charmed by the idea of being important for his own sake, the butler plays along. When the local landowner arrives, of course, he recognizes the butler immediately for what he is and chides him gently for operating above his station. A butler in a Savile Row suit is still a butler, you see.
Not so across the pond. The American aristocracy which developed in the nineteenth century was usually built on money new enough to have the smell of fresh ink on it. This presented a bit of a social problem because yesterday’s paperboy could be tomorrow’s industrialist and vice versa. Absent the structure of title and birth, it was virtually impossible to keep an accurate tally of status and place. The Social Register was one attempt to solve this issue. Another was to lean heavily on signifiers. If you dressed well, owned a proper carriage, and could claim a desirable address, you were Someone. Simple as that.
As our society evolved, the signifiers became increasingly complex and bizarre: affected accents, secret societies, “go-to-hell pants”. We also experienced a diversification of rules and behaviors; for example, Catholic men are generally permitted to wear jewelry but WASP men in society are generally not, which is why Rolexes and the like are so popular as a wealth marker for people who are socially unable to wear something like a heavy gold link bracelet. The Rolex “President” and a five-ounce gold link bracelet are two different ways of conveying the same message, acceptable in different groups.
This American notion of costume-as-signifier is now baked pretty thoroughly into all of our brains. It’s easy for most of us to understand that you might want to “signify” differently to spectate the Pebble Beach Concours and, say, a Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Philly. That’s because we live in a society where people are comfortable with “signifying” two different ways. An English aristocrat of the fifteenth century would not have this core assumption. He would be offended at the suggestion that he adopt a costume to be a baseball fan or a wedding guest. He dressed to signify himself, not to fit in with a particular occasion.
We’re starting to see a recurrence of this, by the way, in the universal exercise wear of the West Coast tech elite; they are now powerful enough to “maintain state” in everything they do. The aristocrats dressed well because it was a consequence of their station, the nouveau riche dressed well to emulate the aristocrats, and the tech crowd dresses badly to emphasize their superiority to both breeding and society. Lyndon Johnson was famous for receiving visitors while seated on the toilet; he would also frequently walk around with his dick out. Both of those behaviors were meant to display raw power. Wearing Lululemons to a charity ball is a similar bit of crassness: this event depends on my money, so I can wear yoga pants and nobody can say a word.
Alright, enough about society. Let’s talk about Fancy Men. The Fancy Man wears and owns certain things which are intended to create a particular image. He arranges for himself to be photographed wearing Patek Philippe or Versace, standing next to a Ferrari or a Singer, at remote destinations with perfectly coordinated outfits. Why does he do it, and why is it ridiculous?
What I want to suggest here is that the Fancy Man is someone who has mistaken the signifier for the signified, or someone who is trying desperately to force the signifier to stand in for the signified. Let’s look at two photos:
The first photo is of the actor Jack Nicholson, whom some of us will remember from Heartiste’s “Spot The Super Alpha” piece and from, ah, some movies. The second photo is a tribute to the first photo, taken at the request of Jay Fielden and put on Jay’s instagram. You can see the similarities between the two: the general mood of the clothing and the luggage, the body language. These signifiers are very similar — but what are the signified truths behind each one?
The first photo was taken by someone who wanted a photo of Jack; the second, by a man who wanted a photo of himself. (Which, in and of itself, is deeply pathetic.)
The first photo is of a man in a spontaneous moment; the second is a self-conscious re-creation of that moment.
The first photo shows a movie star at the height of his imperious fame; the second is an attempt to recapture that savoir faire in a departure from a company that has been doing some heavy bloodletting lately.
So although the signifiers are similar, what they signify is deeply different. Let me ask you: is there an adult man alive who would prefer being the person in the second photo to being the person in the first? Of course not.
The Fancy Men, therefore, are people who appropriate the signifiers of celebrity, wealth, power, fame, prowess, et al., without necessarily possessing or even understanding the signified personalities behind them. They believe that they can become interesting or compelling men by simply assembling a collage of trappings and possessions attached to genuinely interesting or compelling men. It is little different from the childish belief that we could become better sandlot baseball players or backyard football quarterbacks by wearing a replica jersey. Although I, personally, did hit better in softball games as a teenager while wearing my #18 Strawberry Mets practice jersey. Here’s a famous joke from the era: How did Lisa Strawberry convince Darryl to stop hitting her? She told him she was left-handed.
A Fancy Man thinks he has some of Steve McQueen’s mojo because he wears a Heuer Monaco or because he drives a 911 to work, which is ridiculous. I have the same tailor as Jude Law but Jude Law is a movie star and I’m an unexceptional dad from flyover country. You cannot become a celebrity, or an aristocrat, by aping the trappings of celebrity or aristocracy.
It’s worth noting that every man has a desire to emulate, or imitate, other men whom he admires. All of us start off with heroes both near and far. I do a lot of things because my father did them. I’ve written some original music but when I pick up a guitar on a whim I tend to play the music I admire. I want to sing like Robert Plant — and he wanted to sing like Johnnie Ray. John Mayer riffs on Hendrix who in turn riffed on Ike Turner. Mayer, by the way, is responsible for this great quote: “It’s my failure to sound like my heroes that’s allowed me to sound like myself.” Which makes perfect sense. We start by emulating our heroes and end up becoming ourselves. Very few of us ever completely lose the habit of hero worship, but most fully-formed men reach their mid-thirties with an internal compass to obey rather than a masculine north star to follow.
The Fancy Man never gets past the emulation stage. He is the well-heeled version of the fifty-year-old man who wears a Tom Brady jersey in parking lots during the weekends. He can look the part, but he can’t play the part. The products of his mind will always be derivative, will always pay obeisant homage to a brighter light. The Fancy Men of automotive journalism are very big on the hashtag #DriveTastefully, which is ridiculous on its face. Driving is supposed to be joyful, not tasteful. It’s supposed to be an expression of individuality and defiance, not an act of cosplay or homage. The same is true for these other “manly” pursuits of sport or collecting or travel. You’re supposed to follow your own inclinations, not imitate others.
Oh well. There’s an ecosystem to maintain here. The Fancy Men keep a lot of good businesses in business. They make it possible for not-so-fancy men to afford nice things thanks to economy of scale and planned obsolescence. And they are doing a brilliant job of keeping my old 911’s value well above what it would fetch in a world without Loofa-Geh-Kults and whatnot. Here’s to you, Fancy Men. May your lives be spent in perfect, and flawlessly gilded, emulation. May you always dress and comport yourselves like other, vastly more interesting, people. John Updike once put these words into the mouth of his antihero, “Rabbit” Angstrom:
“If you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.”
He meant that any functioning society would have to yield to any desire that was expressed in sufficiently strong and unrepentant fashion — but I like to think of it in the Fancy Man sense. If you have the guts to be yourself, then someday Fancy Men will pay to look just like you. Who knows? Maybe I’ll finally get around to writing the Great American Novel, thus becoming the Papa Hemingway of my generation. In that case, you’ll want to stock up on the 2006 IWC Ingenieur Titanium. The most period-correct examples will have alcohol-related scratches. Don’t miss out.
This week, for Hagerty, I wrote the decidedly non-fancy tale of electric pollution.