In January, Instagram’s favorite fashion critic José Criales-Unzueta (of “Gossip Girl” reboot fame, and who now writes for Vogue) wrote, “Mary Janes for men are *officially* in for AW22.” Once a schoolgirl fixture, he cited the shoe’s prominence in fall menswear runways, from Comme des Garçons Homme Plus’s two-strap thick-soled footwear to Fendi’s clock-strapped leather shoes and JW Anderson’s pastel-colored piped chunkies.
That might as well have been a continuation of menswear’s growing fascination with and adoption of feminine dress codes. Criales-Unzueta likens it to the proliferation of men in skirts (a continuing trend in Spring/Summer 2023 presentations) and pearls in past seasons. He wrote, “These had an air of preppiness to them, fitting right into the wardrobe of the show notes called the ‘neo-dandy,’ a contemporary reimagining of the late Romantic figure of unabashedly flamboyant taste.”
Of course, men have historically worn heels starting in the 10th century with Persian cavalry. It evolved to literally “elevate” men into positions of power until they ultimately decided women are better off with it.
This season, however, it goes beyond heels. Although it was worth mentioning boots, particularly an angular platform sported by Korean popstar Jeno of boy group NCT when he opened the Peter Do Spring 2023 collection during New York Fashion Week.
The designer’s third runway outing also marked his first foray into menswear, incorporating the label’s codes (pleated skirting, edgy leather and metal footwear, and sharp tailoring contrasted with soft, sheer, and billowing silhouettes) into pieces for men. (Though one can argue, Do has long-made suits, pants, and shoes that anyone can enjoy.)
In London, designer Simone Rocha, known for her tulle-, pearls- and lace-infused romanticism, also debuted menswear pieces: tactical attire—bomber jackets, the color fatigue, parachute tapes—merged seamlessly with her signatures, plus some notable tailoring. But the most telling of Rocha’s efforts towards more fluid masculinity are her shoes.
Ballet flats, once only meant for dancing studios and ballet classes have found their way out into the streets, thanks in part to Miu Miu’s cool girl-adjacent delicate satin and velvet ballerinas. This influence is not lost on Rocha’s latest collection, except hers (for him) are made more sturdy and hardy looking, reinforced with buckled straps and soles reminiscent of Raf Simon’s 2013 Ozweego for Adidas. Consider it a sporty descendant of Alessandro Michele’s strappy printed flats in his sophomore menswear collection for Gucci for Spring 2016. Rocha’s just outqueered it by way of a dainty bow on the toes.
Knitwear-forward brand Cormio also showed male models in bowed flats for its Spring 2021 ready-to-wear collection. It came in black and metallic cobalt. Margiela’s diffusion line MM6 had a more literal interpretation of the pointe shoes worn by models with moth-eaten pants and tops accessorized with Salomon running vests. Some looks even had models carrying what looked like satin shoes as bags.
In a season peppered with much-awaited debuts, one of the most promising in Milan was Filipino American designer Rhuigi Villasenor, who showed his first collection for Swiss luxury fashion house Bally. Villaseñor’s debut was filled with eccentric touches like unconventional footwear choices for men to pair with tuxes.
Look 12 saw a rather pointy rendition of Mary Janes for men, which also appeared to be in black patent leather. It was styled with an almost monochrome navy suit. Then there’s a tan suit worn with a bedazzled pair of mesh slippers that brings to mind our mothers’, titas’, and lolas’ beaded sapatilyas.
As fictitious fashion editor Miranda Priestly once condescendingly said, runway trends naturally tend to filter down to department store sales bins the streets—that is if that trend didn’t come from there in the first place, as most do in recent years, they are co-opted and milked by designers, magazines, and fashion houses to death. Except now, with the rise of see-now-buy-now marketing and dubious fast fashion copycat machinery, it’s reflected in real-time.
When Criales-Unzueta did a forecast of the Mary Janes for men trend prior to the i-D magazine piece, his followers—mostly fashion-savvy, internet-literate women and queer creatives (from what I deduce, myself included)—were quick to jump on it, fast-tracking deliveries of said trendy shoes from online retailers so they can wear it within days. Again, that is if they are not already wearing it.
But with men’s trends, media and popular culture tend to conflate Hollywood men (ahem Harry Styles!) and influencers who dress flamboyantly to a cultural shift when in reality they are but exceptions. What percentage of guys IRL actually get into the trends even belatedly? Do they even care about new and groundbreaking ways of dressing when they can always go with what they’re comfortable with and conform to preconceived notions of masculinity? There’s a reason why streetwear’s appeal is unyielding other than its seeming disregard for curation, and, of course, comfort.
There is a kind of erasure that happens when we generalize this cohort as “men”, which implies that cis straight men actually care that much about fashion when really the work of adopting, mainstreaming, and gender binary-breaking is shouldered by queer communities, who often go uncredited.
When a cis straight guy wears a skirt (that aren’t kilts), it is deemed revolutionary even when queer people have been doing it for years. But once heterosexuals fully embrace gendered clothes and accessories in ways other than what they were once made for, a dequeering takes place where coolness also implies taking it away from the realm of the gays.
At best, if and when cissexual heterosexual males do don these fancy shoes as with other previously exclusively femme elements, it is to affirm their own sexuality—if not to mock it and treat cross-dressing as a joke. It screams, “Hey, look! I am secure enough in my own “manliness” that I can wear a skirt or heels and not be called queer.” After all, as journalist and former Interview editor Nick Harramis once wrote of pearls for boys, these gender-bending trends “[don’t] defy gender so much as buttress a binary.”
Instead of asking if men are likely to dip their toes into feminine footwear, maybe the right question to ask is: what does the rise of and possible mainstreaming of these kinds of shoes for men say about our ever-evolving concept of gender? And if something as trivial as a change of shoe really equates to societal change?
Maybe it doesn’t—maybe a shoe is just a shoe.
Art by Ella Lambio