Like every image in the catalogue, and there are over two hundred of them, most of the men appear shirtless and do not have a single hair on their heaving chests. I mean as in not one. I’m not complaining, in compensation they are chiseled, well defined, with multiple abdominals. They are free from blemish. They are uniformly tan. They are Atlas’. They personify the classic “Chelsea” aesthetic, broad pectorals, biceps and narrow waists. Perhaps because underpants are the stock and trade of undergear.com these men appear to have been Brazilian waxed, to the point where one wonders how do they stay warm in the winter?
Like every image in the catalogue, and there are over two hundred of them, all of the men are shot separately in a true commercial format. They may be flirting with the camera, they may be posing, or in the process of taking off a top, even flexing a muscle, but they are not doing it for each other. Still, there’s a sense of foreplay conveyed. They are the buffed and beautiful. Aside each photograph is a close-up, a detail what is known as a “crotch shot” as if they were sizing each other up. Peppered in the detail shots are “buttocks view“, what is known as a “back door.” The first few pages are titillating, it’s like foreplay.
The men are hyper-masculine, as far from effeminate as can be documented. They could easily be straight with classifieds that read “bi-curious“, or “gay for pay”. Their photographic isolation begs analysis. It is just them and the photographer, who is supplanted by us, the voyeur. Granted, they may be on a beach, a pool, downtown, the gym or walking down a staircase, but they live in a world where no other man lives. They do not socialize, interact or seem to share any longing for human companionship. Are they solitary, independent or alone? Take your pick. Is this projection internalized homophobia, or simply an attempt to broaden the demographic base of straight readers who are less tolerant?
The underwear and swim pages fill 41 of the 68 pages. While every conceivable style and color is offered, it’s the lace-up bikinis, leopard prints, mesh knits, and brands with salacious names like Cocksox, Pistol Pete and Baskit that garner a second look. For those of us that are less endowed there is the Enhancement Collection, for those of us with love handles there is the Shape Enhancer Collection, think Spanx for guys. This season there are graphic and cartoon prints by UK artist in residence, Jon Burgerman for Bon Bon. Its appeal clearly directed towards the younger portion of their sque who have just graduated from their novelty tees and cartoon PJ’s. Its appeal is to the kind of customer who watches Glee, not a pedophile, but to whom a high school senior is very attractive.
Overall, the underwear collection speaks to men to whom confidence is a necessary ingredient to success. Red suggests power, purple aristocracy, orange heat, yellow vitality and blue security. Underwear is hidden, a mystery that can be shared, a surprise, something unexpected under a grey suit. Colorful underwear supplies a boost to morale like Viagra.
Men in the underwear and swim pages are closed mouth and do not smile. Of the sixty or seventy models, only one wears a smile. Joy is not a commodity that undergear.com trades in. These are pouty sullen lads. It is a convention of escorts who have been hired en masse to seduce the guests. The men are aloof. They say without mouthing a word…“come and get me!” Maybe one day I will.
There are no tighty whities or boxers with elasticized waistbands on any of the forty-one pages. Everything is skintight, form fitting and stretches to the contours of the genitalia like a compression sock. Imagination and modesty are two other values not embraced by undergear.com. Still the decadent color palate, the unexpected twists of color, the patterns and prints suggest that these men follow fashion, or are at least aware of it.
Following underwear and swim comes casual or active wear. The kind of attire one might wear to a gym if one was trying to get the attention of someone else, instead of lifting weights, engaging in a cardio workout or actually sweat. It is not a mix and match world, nor is or a world of oversize fleece and dirty gym socks, like the real world. It is s a world of outfits named after exotic locales like Moroccan or San Remo Tunic, Venice or La Playa Drawstring Pant, the Torino Lace-Up Top, the Manchester Track Collection and the Montréal Techno Jacket. While the names invoke word travel, a continental view of the world, the clothing is perfunctory, and most likely made in China or India.
As with all things masculine, there are two pages of accessories. Shoes and boots are included. The pages are filled with leather cuffs, watches, a skull ring, a motorcycle money clip, sunglasses, and metallic bracelets and necklaces. None of it is very wearable unless you are trying to blend into a Halloween party where you have come dressed as Jesse James or Dog, the Bounty Hunter.
Now comes the fun, actual clothes, some of it wearable. Like all catalogs, it looks better in print than in real life. Still you will get what you ordered. Again, the clothing is given names to suggest a true International Male. Some of the exotic places represented in the items name are Beverly Hills, Iceland, Belgium, Aspen, Machu, Biarritz, Moscow, Florence and Brooklyn (just keeping’ it real). That’s right the “Brooklyn Hoodie“. In truth, most of the clothing could not be worn in the country it is meant to be inspired to represent. I don’t see the “Iceland Leather Jacket”, (a sweater hybrid) being practical in the Artic. The faux shearing and faux suede is a dead giveaway to Icelanders that you are not from here.
At times distracting, the collections are loosely cobbled together from former seasons and renamed with page headings and little tips, like Old School Cool, Street Smart, Grey Matters, Top Priorities: key this season texture and detail, Denim & Leather: like rock & roll they just go together, and Top Billing. These pages sometimes operate as a collage. Not an ideal way to show fashion, one model in the studio, one model is on the street. The catalogue appears to have been photographed by several different photographers. The editorials are weak, almost diluted, and have no real point of view. They appeared assembled like a quilt.
While we might dismiss it, at times the clothing could be worn by the male cast of The Jersey Shore. The collection has elements akin to Diesel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Ed Hardy. The clothing is constructed relatively simply. There is nothing innovative, smart or cutting edge, but it’s not meant to be designed that way. The clothing has many details, frayed hems, ombre dye’s, zippers; big buttons, distressed washes, and snaps. You will not see these looks strutting down the runway. The collection is too pedestrian. It too lacks point of view. It lacks vision. What it has is mass appeal.
International Male and its companion undergear.com may still too easily receive our scorn. Despite its mainstream evolution, it’s still an easy mark, a fashion target for our ire. Like the community it caters to, the catalogs remain easy to marginalize. It’s simply waved away as a niche category. The catalog flies below the radar of “respectable” like-minded “straight” companies like Jockey or Warnaco. It’s difficult to identify International Male/undergear.com’s impact and influence on popular culture and the gay community. But don’t be surprised, nearly every gay male in America is aware of International Male. Not only aware, but speak of it fondly as one of their first printed introductions into the gay community. The catalog inadvertently frames the gay males shopping habits. Taking what had to be a huge gamble at the time, the company knew that many isolated or closeted men were already viewing erotica in their homes, and mirrored that experience, albeit with shopping. That being said, the catalog has provided a kind of standard, a fashion language for over thirty years to show us what we can aspire to be, or obtain, and what constitutes “going too far” and being conspicuous. The catalog covertly asks… how out do you want to be, what kind of gay man do you want to become?