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Cecil Beaton was a pioneer of a modern approach to masculinity.

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A major cultural shift is under way in terms of feminine power, but are definitions and codes of masculinity keeping pace? The popularity of Netflix’s Queer Eye, which enlisted five gurus to teach men around Atlanta about design, the culinary arts, grooming and fashion, suggests it is.

The series has already been renewed for a second season and is based on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ran from 2003 to 2007 – a show that popularized the becoming social type (and term) metrosexual, ultimately becoming a marketing gimmick to sell prestigious moisturizer in grey packaging.

The reboot isn’t much better when it comes to defining a new kind of masculinity. In fact, its new masculinity isn’t new at all. Clothes and culture are a significant expression of gender and sexuality, but today we’re arguably still in a binary mode. In the current spring/summer issue of COS magazine, for example, an androgynous figure models apron dresses and skirts. And Queer Eye 2.0 only inches forward from its 15-year-old predecessor.

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But beginning in the 1920s, and for several decades after, the decadent aesthete and photographer Cecil Beaton was a pioneer of a modern approach to masculinity. “He was really brave in terms of what his choices were,” author and filmmaker Lisa Vreeland explains. Vreeland is the director of Love, Cecil, the elegant and engaging new documentary about Beaton (narrated by Rupert Everett from Beaton’s letters and diaries). “This whole concept of Bright Young Things, where anything was there to do and try,” she explains. Career, clothing, gender and sexuality were fluid for that interwar artsy upper-class party set. The movie, in part, recounts how Beaton and his patron Stephen Tennant wore nail polish, makeup and, occasionally, dresses with ropes of pearls – what was at the time the vanguard of breaking down traditional binary ideas of gender.

Cecil Beaton on set in New York in the thirties.

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“Was he thinking that he was cross-dressing back then?” Vreeland posits. “He wouldn’t refer to it as cross-dressing, but he was. There’s no doubt.” The photographs he produced of himself in these outfits are important because, as we move forward in this whole life of Instagram and social media, people are very influenced by what they see, she adds, just as they were in Beaton’s day. It’s telling, however, that Beaton’s heyday began nearly a century ago.

“The change in masculinity that is happening right now, whether on the Queer Eye redux or the men’s wear industry, is more style than substance,” Ben Barry says. A few flamboyant, boldly polka-dotted pocket squares does not a peacock revolution make. For the past several years, Barry, associate professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson University’s school of fashion, has been researching masculinities expressed in dress. His research involved wardrobe interviews with Canadian men, who detailed their life histories, the clothing choices they made each day as well as the memories, experiences and feelings attached to the garments in their closets.

Beaton subtly eroticized the military men he chronicled for Life and other major magazines.

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Fashion as a tool for social change is possible, Barry says, “but it requires the men’s wear industry to stop policing feminine dress and recoding feminine dress as masculine.”

Beaton did not compartmentalize his identity depending on his social versus professional settings; even while working as a war photographer, he opted to bring the mainstream world into the theatre of life, and to subtly eroticize the military men he chronicled for Life and other major magazines. “He had the courage to show who he really was and I think that is definite message of today that we need,” Vreeland says, adding that what she hope for the movie, “is the audience to dig deep into themselves.”

Beaton was a singular personality of driving ambition who was obsessed with self-fashioning. Although he worked and travelled in the upper echelons of wealth and privilege, insulated by race and class from judgmental vagaries of the world at large and the risks and consequences of his choices, there are still lessons to be learned.

Beaton was obsessed with self-fashioning.

Some of Barry’s research demonstrates that men (“including white, straight men”) are now more conformable engaging with fashion in general and especially with styles constructed as feminine such as more expressive, colourful clothes. “Because fashion has been associated with femininity in modern Western society, the conclusion appears to be that men are openly disrupting gender binaries by simply engaging with fashion, let alone by wearing unconventional styles,” he explains. “My new findings go deeper to look at how men dress based on their context, location and activity as well as based on their professional and personal identities.”

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In a coming article to be published in an academic journal, Barry cautions that on the surface, it looks as if men are shattering gender binaries, “but they are actually making clothing choices, both knowingly and unknowingly, that reveal a deep cultural fear of expressing femininity and disrupting their gender privilege,” he says. Many men surveyed still opt for sober dark jackets and suits when engaged in activities with high rewards, such as interviews and job promotions, Barry’s research shows. “What has been deemed feminine has been appropriated into the discourse of masculinity (i.e. fashion to assert power), leaving the cultural superiority of masculinity intact.”

In the first episode, Queer Eye’s new style expert, Tan France, says that the show’s original iteration was “fighting for tolerance.” Now, he says, “Our fight is for acceptance.” But episodes are an excuse to lightly approach prejudice about gender norms and identity, and gingerly confront toxic masculinity in the U.S. mainstream through the pretext of a lifestyle makeover. Queerness is more varied – even Beaton’s business suit with stilettos would be a start – and the show needs to think bigger and beyond the mainstream approachability of Season 1 to further dismantle what’s normative and take its name to heart.

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