In small town Michigan, 1972, there's a 17-year-old boy. We'll call him Randy, or something. Randy isn't on the football team, and Randy's skin is getting a little bit pepperoni pizza. It's not that Randy is unpopular. It's just that he, with his face that's yet to flesh out into full all-American handsomeness, isn't the most popular. But here he is, shuffling on both feet like an Emperor penguin on azelaic acid with Mindy. And he's doing so in a shirt that belies the awkwardness cursed upon him by adolescence. It is pink. It is loud. It is covered in ruffles.
Because, back then, a ruffled dress shirt to rival Liberace was the done thing. Yes, even during those pre-liberation, pro-polyester times, details traditionally considered feminine were embraced by men of all shades. Frills were fun. Until they weren't. The appetite for Meatloaf sleeves and fronts fell out of favour with Studio 54's closure, and the advent of the Eighties with its clean lines and shoulder pads and T-shirts in lieu of actual proper shirts. Ruffles were dead. Well, until they weren't.
During the A/W '20 show window – the last one before a global plague stretchered fashion week onto a laptop screen – the trims of grandmama's floral curtains began to blossom beneath collars and cuffs once more. Nature (or at least 1972) is returning. "This period was when men began dressing more unconventionally; peacocking in its most original form," says Joe Brunner, junior buyer at left-field luxury retailer Browns. "Gucci and Saint Laurent have been flying this flag for decades, and the former now more than ever as [creative director] Alessandro Michele long embedded romantic nostalgia within this space. It only feels right that micro trends like ruffles resurface."
That Michele's Gucci – often seen as a coveted outlier in menswear – isn't alone shows how much ruffles have gained traction. At Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh ruffled up classic tailoring with anemone-like hems, details and sleeves. There was one memorable voluminous shirt too: a very well-dressed shower puff on its first big day of a Wall Street internship. Prada, meanwhile, paid tribute to everyday antiheroes (Randy, is that you?) and quietly edged a trio of bibbed shirts in slighter, bellboy-esquire ruffles. And for a more preferable viral dose in 2020, Loewe exposed its gender-fluid collection to a terminal bout of Saturday Night Fever in flowing lamé gowns atop more classic menswear pieces.
Patient zero however, was found at fashion's biggest fancy dress party. "I saw ruffles first pop up at the 2019 Met Gala when Harry Styles walked out alongside Gucci's Michele. It was a moment," says Brunner. "It harked back to some of my earliest memories of Mick Jagger peacocking in dress and ruffles in the Nineties, and it feels more natural to blur the gender lines now."
Which can cause much consternation. We're not all Harry Styles. But while ruffles undoubtedly belong to the gender fluid push in today's fashion industry, they're still rooted in the trends of traditional menswear past. They're part of both, and more wearable than you'd assume. A ruffled dress shirt in the context of black tie is an easy way to shift a look that, once upon a time, offered very little wriggle room. Or you could go full Pradaian, with a low frills approach to a smart-casual bib shirt.
Because real men have always worn ruffles, unafraid to embrace femininity. Those at Met Galas in 2019, those who walk in runway shows in 2020, and those who pose as false prophets in hillbilly gothic thrillers like The Devil All The Time. And yes, those that nervously attend soft-lit proms in Nowheresville circa 1972. Uncle Randy and Aunt Mindy will tell you all about that, sonny Jim!
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