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Men's wear trend no drag on women's fashion


It's the other kind of drag. Women in pin stripes, starched shirts and neckties ruled the runways from Paris to New York this season.

But like Madonna in "Express Yourself" or Marlene Dietrich in black tie, this is men's wear with an edge, Savile Row with an undercurrent of some new sexual dynamic.

"There's definitely a kinky flavor to this kind of men's wear, as expressed in the tailoring," said Camille Paglia, whose book "Sexual Personae" traces images of power and beauty in history.

"It forces you to say, 'Oh, it's a woman in men's clothes.' There's a sensuality to it and a feeling of role reversal."

Designers certainly went all out for the look, from Karl Lagerfeld's black dresses with white blouses and black neckties to Dolce & Gabbana's neckties worn with leather bustiers and the recent men's tuxedo looks by Christian Francis Roth and Giorgio Armani, deconstructed into dresses.

Ralph Lauren was perhaps the most single-minded and consistent, sending out nearly every model this season in expertly tailored dark pin-striped suits, complete with vests, watch fobs and neckties. Many sported bowler hats and walking sticks.

Ads in women's magazines for Mr. Lauren's spring styles show a model cropped from shoulder to waist, only the suit-jacketed torso visible, with a drooping pocket square. They pose a question more provocative than the clothes: Man or woman? Not to mention: Is this Esquire or Vogue?

The man-style influence has cycled into women's wear periodically, from George Sand to Annie Hall.

In the yin-yang of fashion, the recent manifestations could be seen as a reaction to the ultrafeminine styles of the late 1980s. Only drag queens really know how to pull off that look anymore.

The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings also brought to the forefront delicate issues of appearance and sex discrimination.

Two widely discussed books, "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and "Backlash" by Susan Faludi, argue that the ultrafeminine fashions of the 1980s, particularly those of Christian Lacroix, were part of a backlash against feminism.

"A number of things have unfolded to call into question the idea that a woman could wear the traditional garb of availability and be powerful," said Stuart Ewen, a professor of media studies at Hunter College.

"Historically," Mr. Ewen added, "reform clothing movements have come when issues of gender and equality have been percolating."

Mr. Ewen suggested that for a woman to dress like a man is to affirm her power. For a man to dress as a woman is to shed power.

Why, then, is a man in drag disturbing, while a woman in men's clothes is not?

"Women in men's clothing in no way challenge the notion that the ultimate kick is to be a man," Mr. Ewen said. "When a man does it, it's designated a perversion. It's threatening because it opens up the idea that symbols of male power are essentially just that. The play of symbols is revealed too nakedly."

One symbol of the current rage for men's wear involves the appropriation of a key item of male paraphernalia: The necktie.

London designer John Richmond sent a model out this season wearing an exaggerated man's tie, more than a foot wide and hanging to her thighs. A parody, but with Freudian connotations.

The man's tie has often been viewed as phallic, "the penis displaced upwards," as Ms. Paglia put it. But displaced in a way that makes the wearer part of a corporate culture, since the necktie is also a yoke.

"In the Annie Hall look, you couldn't really wear a rep tie," Ms. Paglia said. "This is different from that and from the John T. Molloy dress-for-success look of the 1970s, that kind of desexed look. Certainly Madonna has been influential here -- an assertively sexual woman donning clothes in a transvestite way, without losing contact with the sultry female beneath."

Ms. Paglia said the phenomenon was part of the nation's expanding sexual sophistication.

"To me, it's absolutely parallel to the nude dancing bars for businessmen, which I applaud," she said. "Nude dancing is an ancient art form."

Whatever. The new manly style also signals a late 20th-century recognition that women love men's clothes, which tend to be more comfortable, less expensive and better made than women's.

Christian Lacroix offered his own theory on the explosion in men's wear for women:

"It's easy to design."

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