Historically, men’s fashion has not been too varied. Dandyism – the idea that a man can express himself through his appearance – is a relatively new concept, originating somewhere around the mid 18th century. For most of history, men’s style has been less about style than about exhibiting power and wealth, and classical art – funded by the rich and powerful – depicts a Euro-centric image. However, style is something that has nothing to do with skin color and, frankly, it doesn’t have much to do with wealth, either. The men featured here can serve as inspiration for everyone.
Man with a Glove by Titian (cca 1520)
As far back in time as the Renaissance, people knew that black looks cool. Unlike his master, Giorgione, who was fond of using color accents – tones of bright red especially – Titian opts for a subdued, sober color scheme and depicts the different textures in the young man’s clothing with brilliant accuracy. Besides the leather gloves, his only accessories are a partially concealed medallion and a gold ring – signs of wealth that are subdued, instead of showy (and bling was a thing in the Renaissance as well). The identity of the man is unknown, but one hypothesis claims that he might have been a young Ferrante Gonzaga, one of the sons of Duke Francesco II Gonzaga of Mantua and his wife, Isabella d’Este, later known for his military career.
Boy with a Flying Squirrel by John Singleton Copley (1765)
After painting this portrait of his step-brother, Henry Pelham – himself a future artist – Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley sent his work to be exhibited in London, where it was praised by the leading portrait artist of the time, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In contrast with the pomp of the portraits painted by Reynolds (or his contemporary Thomas Gainsborough) and the elaborate character of the European fashions of the time, there is a casual, subdued elegance in Pelham’s attire. The portrait also stands out through the fact that it shows its subject in profile and gives equal attention to the young man’s pet, instead of turning it into another accessory. (NOTE: Exotic animals are, of course, not meant to be pets. We know better now than they did in the 18th century.)
Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony (1882)
Oscar Wilde was the perfect embodiment of the literary dandy – a man who placed equal importance on knowledge and appearance. A leading figure of the current known as aestheticism, Wilde was a firm believer in the adage “art for art’s sake,” which favored aesthetic values over social themes in literature and fine arts. In this portrait by photographer Napoleon Sarony, he is shown wearing knee-length socks, which were unusual for the second half of the 19th century, but can be interpreted as a throwback to the early days of dandyism, in the 18th century.
Count Robert de Montesquiou by Giovanni Boldini (1897)
A French aesthete, poet and cat lover, Count Robert de Montesquoiu was also a patron of the arts who is rumored to have been the inspiration for two major literary characters of the time – des Esseintes of “A Rebours/Against the Grain” by Joris-Karl Huysmans and the Baron du Charlus in the oft-featured on best books-type lists but seldom read “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu/In Search of Lost Time” by (who else?) Marcel Proust. In this portrait, Giovanni Boldini creates a charming, subtly ironic contrast between the sharp, modern elegance of the Count’s grey suit and the pompous pose, inspired by the great tradition of European portraiture.
Rudolph Valentino by Unknown Photographer (1923)
Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in 1895, the son of an Italian father and French mother, Rudolph Valentino was one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era and yet remains a mystery to this day. One of the rumors surrounding his life was that he might have been of Romani Gypsy ethnicity, but this was concealed by the studios for reasons of rampant Hollywood racism. Pigeon-holed as a romantic lead of ambiguous ethnicity – such as in the movie “The Sheik,” which is all sorts of wrong by today’s standards – Valentino died in 1926, at the tender age of 31. He is still remembered as one of the most stylish men in early Hollywood and contemporary movie stars cite him as a style inspiration.
David Bowie by Masayoshi Sukita (1977)
Masayoshi Sukita photographed the late, great David Bowie for over 40 years, from the artist’s Ziggy Stardust period to the final years of his life. Considering Bowie’s love for Japanese fashion and culture, one could say that their meeting was meant to be. By far, one of the most famous products of their collaboration is the cover image for the 1977 single “Heroes.” This photo is an outtake from the “Heroes” photoshoot, where David Bowie adopts a simpler, more subdued style, in contrast with his earlier glam rock outfits, such as Ziggy Stardust’s gloriously outlandish jumpsuits.
Kanye West by Scott Schuman, 2010
A former photographer for top US fashion magazines, with his own men’s fashion showroom, Scott Schuman is best known for turning street style photography into a respected art form through his celebrated blog, The Sartorialist. Also – I know what you’re thinking right now! You’re thinking “Imma let you finish,” aren’t you? Well, “Imma let you finish,” but, regardless of what your opinion of Kanye West might be, you have to admit that he has great style. Here, Schuman captures a different, quieter side of Kanye, that we don’t get to see too often.
Bruno Mars by Kerry Hallihan for L’Uomo Vogue, 2011
Bruno Mars gets a lot of hate for wearing fedora hats, which, in the last few years, have come to be associated with rude, disrespectful men. There was, however, a time when this type of hat was a sign of elegance and good manners, and Mars’ personal style pays homage to that time. For this photoshoot, the singer ditched his trademark fedora and colorful retro throwbacks and adopted a timeless monochrome style. Haters are, of course, gonna hate.
Miyavi by Taka Mayumi for L’Uomo Vogue, 2013
Best known to Western audiences for his role as the prison camp guard in the movie “Unbreakable,” Miyavi (born Ishihara Takamasa in 1981) is one of the most appreciated and original rock musicians from Japan. Dubbed “the Samurai Guitarist,” Miyavi is also known for taking risks with his personal style, from full-on Visual Kei color explosion, to rock’n’roll leather jackets and pants, tailored suits and everything in between.
G-Dragon for Giuseppe Zanotti, 2015 (Photographer unknown)
Korean singer and rapper – and overall cool person who’s not afraid of poking fun at himself – G-Dragon (born Kwon Ji-Yong in 1988) is also known for his enthusiasm for fashion and for being a muse for big-name fashion designers like Karl Lagerfeld. In 2015, G-Dragon was involved in designing a shoe line for Giuseppe Zanotti. In contrast with the colorful and sometimes over-accessorized outfits he usually sports, this ad had him wearing an all-black, smart casual outfit, where the bling is mostly in the shoes. (By the way, the shoes are unisex.)
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.