The Culture of Male Beauty in Britain by Paul R. Deslandes
University of Chicago Press
Paul R. Deslandes investigates the generational dictates of what constitutes ‘masculine; appearance and behavior in his book ‘The Culture of Male Beauty.’ The book spans almost two centuries of interconnective analysis with the ongoing subtexts of straight, gay, genderfluid and racial sensibilities.
The coverboy of Paul Deslandes’ book is Edwardian gay poet and star athlete Rupert Brooke in fact was so comely in physical appearance that he was a model for E.M. Forster’s gay classic ‘Maurice’ which the author withheld from publication until after his death.
And Deslandes deconstructs Britain’s oppressive inequities of a century of obsessive sexual mores, propagated by religion, politics and society at large. Most of the rules which only seemed to apply to the lower classes or those trying to live openly on queer street.
Indeed, the hot-house all-male environments of Oxford and Eton, being on the not so down-low was normal rite of passage, but the offense was of course owning it and god forbid, saying it out loud. The repressive rules prohibited any realistic or healthy discourse about sex, straight or gay, sometimes even in marriages.
Deslandes’ chapters on male appearance after WWI are expose the insensitivity toward soldiers who were somehow survived the trenches in France and Germany, returned home with severe injuries and was considered disfigured faces, the victims of mustard gas, bomb shrapnel, bayonets, starvation.
British Military were well aware of promoting the images of handsome, groomed men in uniform that would attract men from poor backgrounds. As much as they would try to hide the images of men returning from war with devastating injuries to their faces.
Of particular interest . Deslandes tracks the trends of ‘beauty’ trends of men in post WWII Britain. The image makers of fashion houses, salons and increasingly, gay culture at large. But in all three areas, exclusion ‘effeminate’ men and black and brown men.
Deslandes’ investigation on the experiences of soldiers who survived, with devasting injuries to the face and body, is sensitively written and critically important cultural history of Britain’s cynical view in this era of a person’s worth in terms of physical appearance. 60 years later the British tabloids would publish gruesome images, with the stink of homophobia, of HIV/AIDS patients with emaciated bodies and faces swollen and scarred with Kaposi Sarcoma.
The elimination of decriminalization of homosexuality, led to the flood of gay pornography in Britain in the 60s, was part key in gay cultural openness and visibility. The liberation march of living openly or expressing their sexual identity was a sea change for the country who convicted Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi enigma code and was a pioneer in developing computer technology, Turing was sentenced for gross indecency because he admitted he was gay. The court gave him the option of jailtime or medically induced castration. He chose the latter, and the side effects were so severe they drove him to commit suicide.
Culturally, that was another matter as politicians, religious leaders and straight communities continued to demonize, harass, attack, discriminate and oppress gay people. This also is the subtext of Deslandes’ study. As is the politics of GLTBQ visibility.
It is also a unique history of queerness as expressed in open, subversive, or coded ways in eras of culturally oppressive environments. From the inherent understanding that the naked statuary of a male wrestling with a huge python was purely academic in 18’’ just as it was understood in the 1970’s nude photos of queer men of color in magazines such as Zipper were not about diversity but about the fetishization of black and brown bodies by white publishers.
Comprehensive cultural research to debrief (sorry) such topics as the influence of the ultra-beefy ‘clone’ look of 70s gay men in the US as it became trended in British gay skin mags, for instance, is inadvertently campy by now, There is a lot of valuable history here in Deslandes’ comprehensive approach. Admirably he delves into the negative and unhealthy concepts of proscribing what and who determines what physical attributes are beautiful. And the how notion of attractiveness and masculinity.
Aside from pornography, Deslandes examines the commodification and exploitation of models by the fashion industry recognizing the open market of gay consumerism. The cultural phenomenon of British sport star David Beckham launched as an international underwear model with a huge gay following. As silly as such campaigns always are, the marketing targeted to both straight women and gay men as a profitable campaign changed the corporate fashion and the impact on representation of queer visibility. A picture is still worth a thousand words right, no?