Just as a good draftsman must first draw the void, the genius of a clothing designer consists in weaving around the skin, showing the body, in a subtle, strategic, progressive way. “Undress me, but not right away,” sang Juliette Greco. Abyssal cleavages, vertiginous slits, micro-lobes, we have seen these approaches so often that their effect fades. What was sensual, racy, daring, now touches upon banality and boredom. We were in need of a spark to rekindle the stars in our eyes, and here it is, crackling through Haider Ackermann’s talent for design and unfolding in red silk, moiré appearing as if a theater curtain, all wrapped around Timothée Chalamet’s skin.

But what has Ackermann done? What kind of explosive did he put in his sewing machine so that at the last Venice Film Festival, the 79th, the frenzied crowd almost devoured Chalamet as he stepped out of the car and onto the red carpet? No doubt he remembered one of the most incandescent fashion moments in cinema when, playing the role of a modern Mata Hari in The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, actress Mireille Darc, wearing a sober black dress with a turtleneck and long sleeves, suddenly turned around. The dress had no back: it left Darc’s back, a splendid, refined back at that, simply underlined by a golden chain which framed the tops of the buttocks with an incomparable elegance.

Unattended, invisible to its owner, the back is the most insightful and vulnerable part of the anatomy. The back cannot see itself, but it is the first to tremble at the slightest danger. Our primitive instincts and, above all, our sixth sense, which tells us that someone is watching without our knowledge, express themselves through the back. Fragile and powerful, the back is the territory of desire. It speaks to hands, to foreign eyes without consulting its owner.

That men go shirtless, wear dresses or skirts, play with colors and prints or borrow accessories from the female wardrobe is not a novelty. But Chalamet’s halter top brings an emotion of a hitherto unknown intensity to the fashion landscape. The crimson color, the scarf collar, the sketched drape and the large naked territory they delineate, present him to the hysterical crowd as a contemporary gladiator ready for glory or sacrifice.

Indication of the future

In a post-pandemic world, men have indeed embraced fashion in all its glory once more — daring to dream while attempting to challenge societal norms. Men’s fashion has become bold, fun, captivating and never too serious, ditching the formula, namely tailored suits, usually expected at formal occasions. In the West figures such as Chalamet, Harry Styles and Lil Nas X are challenging the stereotypes that define masculinity by forging and embracing their unique personal styles.

If fashion’s history is indicative of the future, and for the most part it is, we are moving towards an era where fashion is gender neutral. For example, skirts, commonly worn by women, were worn in humanity’s most ancient civilizations by both genders. Gauzy wraps and loincloths for Egyptians, togas denoting class and status for Greeks and Romans, ornate military costumes for Aztecs — the skirt was worn by all because it was easy to construct and did not restrict movement. It was only in the 20th century that male skirts disappeared to be replaced by suits.

In our region, Dubai-based ready-to-wear brand Anomalous is challenging the borders of gender focused fashion with garments catering to all, through daring cuts, silhouettes and materials. Others such as Elie Saab and Georges Hobeika, who presented men’s looks last couture season, have embraced embroidery and silk, which are not typically popular among men in the MENA region. However, will they be soon? Will the tide slowly start to shift? And will be become a society that appreciates fashion and style for what is it, rather than what we’ve defined it as, one rooted and driven by societal values and expectations?

Only time will tell.