Illustration by Marta Parszeniew
When I was 13, I got really into hair products: Wella Shock Waves Gel, Wet Look VO5, Fudge Styling Wax, L'Oreal Extra Strength, Aussie Mousse, basically anything that promised to texture, control, or volumise my greasy crown. At one point I was applying several of these gloopy potions daily, ruffing my follicles into a crispy, lacquered mess. Beneath the fiberglass meringue that was my barnet you would usually find a combination of Paul Smith aftershave, Nivea moisturiser, Levi's engineered jeans (straight from Cromwell's Madhouse) and reproduction 70s football training tops with "BRA" on one side and "ZIL" on the other.
It would have been a ridiculous look for anyone, but especially for a 13-year-old. My pustular skin didn't need to be made any more moist and I didn't even own a razor, let alone need expensive aftershave. But it wasn't a look I was forced into by my peers, who were still turning up to own-clothes day in full Man United kits and using roll-on Lynx, it was one I was coerced into by a group of older men: the metrosexuals.
Writer Mark Simpson first coined the term "metrosexual" in 1994, but it's his 2002 summation of the tribe that explains it the best: "The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis — because that's where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference." In essence, they were the men of their time: hopelessly stylish, haplessly selfish, helplessly lost.
By today's standards of gender fluidity and body modification, it doesn't seem like much of a revolution. But the metrosexuals were the post-9/11, pre-credit crunch dandies: they shagged around but cared about their skin, watched football but cared about their hair, drank lager but cared about their teeth. They drove BMW Z3s and vintage Vespas, they had canvas prints of Bobby Moore and Michael Caine on the walls of their Islington bachelor pads. They drank fruity beer, wooed PR girls and knew that wiping, rather than washing, your porcini helped retain the flavour. This was masculinity, Carluccio's style.
There were a litany of examples: David Beckham's Police campaigns, the work of Gordon Ramsey before he became a crumbling lunatic puking out undercooked clam chowder in mid-American diners, José Mourinho before he became the ultimate dad-on-the-sofa, the entire oeuvre of Tom Ford, Hugh Grant's character in About A Boy and the video for "Gotta Get Thru This" by Daniel Bedingfield, in all its millennial glory.
The conduct, philosophy and aesthetic of the metrosexual man were enshrined in the 2004 remake of Alfie, where Jude Law skips around Manhattan on a scooter, breaking hearts and moisturising daily. Much in the same way that Taxi Driver spoke to a generation of young men suffering from disillusionment in the post-Vietnam era, Alfie spoke to a post-millennial man who was really worried that that his T-zone was looking a bit oily.
This became the standard of masculinity for some time: Rugby players started getting back, sack and crack waxes; Prime Ministers appeared on the cover of GQ; nobody wore a tie for almost a decade. This was the first time in history in which, feasibly, you could have your head kicked in by somebody who used toner.
But then something happened among the high-earning metropolitan elite: that idea of ultra-smooth sexuality, skinny ties, scooters and chillout compilations suddenly became old hat. A new kind of man was on the horizon: the Old Street farm-hand, the heavily-considered, heavily follicled throwback who likes his pork pulled, his jeans salvaged, his beard oiled and his beer brewed in a barrel, under a railway arch in Homerton.
The staples changed. Zero 7 became Caribou, Carluccio's became Meat Mission and Jude Law became Bon Iver. First they decommissioned Concorde, then came this. It was as if the future we had been promised had been snatched from us, and we'd been plunged into a cultural darkness where the overlords ran coffee shops with swear words in their name. The original metrosexuals, meanwhile, slunk off towards fatherhood, bankruptcy and chronic cocaine addictions. They moved to Frome and sold their Miles Davies vinyls.
Of course, both these ideals are just as ludicrous and fake as each other, but the differences between them tell us a lot about what's happened to British society in the last few years. For all their capitalist swagger, the metrosexuals were believers in industry, in mass production, in brands: Nivea, BMW, HMV and Absolut Vodka. Whereas the Old Street farmhands are essentially luddites, suspicious of anything that comes from anywhere further than Nunhead, brewing their own booze and selling to their own people like some weird southern death cult.
The metrosexuals, for all their sins, saw themselves as men of the world, even if only because they had a La Dolce Vita poster in their kitchens and they were on first name terms with the Italian geezer at the Deli. The Old Street farm-hands see themselves as very much local, essentially carrying out some eccentric nu-tribalism, competing with people from other London villages about who's got the best pale ales and chilli slaw.
Although neither would want to hear it, both are very much the result of the politics of their time. The metrosexuals were the spawn of Blair, international playboys who nailed major arms deals in Paul Smith suits and committed atrocities whilst listening to "A Rush Of Blood To The Head" off their first-era iPod docks. Whereas the pork'n'beard brigade are the bastard children of the Big Society, little Englanders in heritage workwear, desperately trying to recreate The Cotswolds or the set of To Kill A Mockingbird in inner city London, refusing to let a little thing like the working class get in the way.
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It's pointless to say if either tribe is better or worse, both have their sins. But while it's hard to imagine any legacy the Old Street farm hands will leave, aside from transforming great swathes of Britain's industrial brownfields into unaffordable cafe spaces, metrosexuals have had a lasting, tangible impact on British culture.
You can see the metrosexual legacy in the buffed, pampered, increasingly feminised men of Britain. In the guyliner and the creatine and the spray tans of the protein shake guzzling gym-obsessed sad young douchebags. Granted, it's in a much more lurid, sexualized form than Jude Law on a Vespa or Jamie Oliver tearing (not cutting) some parsley, but it's also inherently more charming than buying a property on Brick Lane, serving expensive coffee and telling anyone who complains to fuck off. It's something that's travelled a lot more, had a lot more impact, and maybe, for all it's inherent silliness, changed the way we perceive masculinity. Whereas the Old Street farmhands only serve to challenge notions of the future, endlessly trying to "reclaim", rather than "reimagine".
It's easy to write off the metrosexuals, but perhaps they were some misguided vanguards of the future, forgotten dreamers, with a legacy far beyond the world they lived in. Moisturised, texturized, maximized dreamers on Vespas, riding towards a freedom that we may have only just found.
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