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J. C. Leyendecker and the Homoerotic Invention of Men's Fashion Icons, 1910–1930

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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In his trenchant essay, on “Géricault and ‘Masculinity’,’ Norman Bryson writes, “In the linkage between the male subject, the male image, and the social hierarchy, one of the key components of the political order of patriarchy may, perhaps, be found.” Bryson understands the male image implies terms of power and presentation in culture, and in American culture no less than any other. Of course, the male image is most often armed, protected, and placed on a pedestal, literally or figuratively. Yet there is need to reckon with man's image. To analyze the representation of the male in American visual culture is not necessarily to repudiate existing heroes and to enjoin any virtues of a gender. On the contrary, we may discover an old friend in a new cognizance.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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1. Norman Bryson, Gericault and ‘Masculinity,’” in Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations, ed. Bryson, Norman, Holly, Michael Ann, and Moxey, Keith (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 258.Google Scholar

2. Yablon, Nick, “‘The Arrow Collar Man’: Advertising and Masculinity, 1905–1930” (Master's essay, University of Chicago, 1995)Google Scholar, is the first critical study of Leyendecker's popular image and is an insightful reading of the images and their context.

3. Ibid., 17–20.

4. Yablon (“Arrow Collar Man,” 23, 3738Google Scholar) points out the possible parallels between the scandal of purported effeminacy for movie star Rudolph Valentino and the more probably hidden traits of the Arrow Collar Man, though insinuating that Leyendecker's omission from a list of most important illustrators published in Vanity Fair in 1915.

5. Schau, Michael, J. C. Leyendecker (New York: Watson-Guptil, 1974), 30Google Scholar; and Yablon, Nick, “Arrow Collar Man,” 21Google Scholar. Though some Arrow Company archives are available to researchers and pieces from the company's collection were presented in an exhibition “The Arrow Collar Man” the author curated at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in 1986, no contemporary can testify to having seen the thousands of letters that have been alleged.

6. See, in particular, Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic, 1994)Google Scholar. Chauncey's study pertains both directly and indirectly to Leyendecker. While we know little to nothing of the artist's personal circulation in the culture of gay New York that Chauncey delineates, Leyendecker is certainly of the confluence of sophistication, urban life, artistic intention, and homosexuality that converged to designate a modern gay male sensibility. Cooper, Emmanuel in The Sexual Perspective-Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in West (2nd ed. [New York: Routledge, 1994])Google Scholar groups Leyendecker with painters Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley: “The clean all-American Ivy League elegant men that Leyendecker painted, with their superior, all-knowing air of confident homosexuality, the blatantly homoerotic work of Demuth, and the spiritually intense portraits by Hartley were, in their very different ways, moving towards an expression of self-identity and affirmation. Guilt, uncertainty, and the need to shield the details of their private life were in conflict with the desire to be open and clear” (133).

7. A conventional view of Leyendecker in the tradition of American illustration is found in Schau, , J. C. LeyendeckerGoogle Scholar. While Schau cites Leyendecker's companion of fifty years, Charles Beach, and asserts that Beach is the model for the Arrow Collar Man, this book does not otherwise address the homosocial world of early-20th-century illustration or the homoerotic possibilities of Leyendecker's work. In America's Great Illustrators (New York: Abrams, 1978)Google Scholar, Susan E. Meyer characterizes Beach's relationship with Leyendecker as the element that soured Leyendecker's link with his brother, illustrator Frank X. Leyendecker. She writes, “Because of the absence of any personal records, we will never know the precise nature of their [J. C. Leyendecker and Charles Beach] relationship. Reports by friends and neighbors tend not to be reliable, exaggerating the extremes of each personality involved as though each was [sic] a character in a Victorian melodrama: Beach the Villain, Joe the Victim, Frank the Martyred Younger Brother. [Norman] Rockwell, for example, describes Beach as ‘a real parasite — like some huge, white, cold insect clinging to Joe's back’” (149). Both Rockwell and Meyer seem to describe a homosexual relationship as a hyperbolic, inexorably exploitative s-&-m synergy, an enactment out of homophobic representation, so these representations must be received with some skeptical judgment.

8. Martin, Richard, “American Chronicle: J. C. Leyendecker's Icons of Time,” Journal of American Culture 19 (Spring 1996): 5988.Google Scholar

9. Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, 1872.Google Scholar

10. Cooper, , Sexual Perspective, 132.Google Scholar

11. Chauncey, (Gay New York, esp. 120–27)Google Scholar describes in particular the discrimination between “fairies” or other mincing “faggots” and the masculine men who were in many instances partners to such men for sexual purposes, but sought to reserve themselves from any signs of effeminence. Yablon sustains the same thinking with important citations (“Arrow Collar Man,” 3739).Google Scholar

12. Pronger, Brian, in The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex (New York: St. Martin's, 1990)Google Scholar, argues with some lapses into hyperbole for this quite apparent nexus. For Leyendecker, as for Easkins, sports and individual physical training were potent for male imagery and perhaps provided a facile excuse for the pleasurable exercise of spectatorship and admiration.

13. See Martin, Richard, “Fundamental Icon: J. C. Leyendecker's Male Underwear Imagery,” Textile & Text 15 (Spring 1992): 1932.Google Scholar

14. This body of work is discussed at length in Martin, Richard, “Gay Blades: Homoerotic Content in J. C. Leyendecker's Gillette Advertising Images,” Journal of American Culture 18 (Summer 1995): 7582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15. To attribute intense sentiment on masculinity to the subject of the dressed male is, of course, to substantiate the classic argument that phallic masculinity as defined by the not-visible phallus is inexorably transferred to the clothed figure.

16. This Leyendecker image is published and discussed at length (in the context of commercial imagery and idealism of the period) in Martin, Richard, “Fashion in the Age of Advertising,” Journal of Popular Culture 29 (Fall 1995): 233–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17. The Kuppenheimer stylebooks are often less aggressive than the actual advertising, though images can traverse the two modes. A Kuppenheimer stylebook, as well as advertising, is remembered when Giorgio Armani expropriates images from Leyendecker in the 1980s. See Martin, Richard, “What is Man! The Imagery of Male Style of J. C. Leyendecker and Giorgio Armani,” Textile & Text 13 (Spring 1990): 327.Google Scholar

18. The status and role of illustration in American advertising and magazine commissions (stories and emblems within as well as covers) are not fully analyzed, but Michele H. Bogart's insightful “Artistic Ideals and Commercial Practices: The Problems of Status for American Illustrators” (Prospects 15 [1990]: 225–81Google Scholar) is an essential text in posing the problems. Bogart considers Leyendecker, for example, in the uncertain church-and-state separation or equilibrium between magazine illustrator and advertising illustrator (see esp. 246–50). Browsing through issues of the Saturday Evening Post of the 1910s and 1920s, one is stuck by the number of times that a Leyendecker commercial image on the inside front cover or elsewhere inside the magazine is stronger than another artist's cover image.

19. While Leyendecker's images were commercially propagated, they must be considered in the context of contemporary images by Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Paul Cadmus, among others, all vested with homoerotic incentive. In particular, Weinberg, Jonathan, in Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)Google Scholar, analyses the place of male homosexuality as clandestine subject and as a sign system in communications in literary and artistic homosexual circles of the period. Leyendecker's prodigious commercial success may have isolated him from some cryptic communications, but his work here exposed to such themes lends itself to new readings.

20. If the inexpert surprise of this essay is that a gay-induced icon can be as well an ideal of virility to heterosexuals but perhaps avoid full recognition, contemporary culture offers many examples, notably including Rock Hudson. Charles Isherwood's article “Confessions of a Playgirl Centerfold” (Advocate, 07 11, 1995, 44 ff.Google Scholar) is a recent example: it identifies the Playgirl 1992 Man of the Year, Dirk Shafer, who presumably embodied the ideal man to a heterosexual female readership, as a (now) declared homosexual.

21. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the College Art Association annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in January 1995. I am particularly grateful to my lifetime friend, Dr. Alessandra Comini, University Professor, Southern Methodist University, for her counsel and encouragement in emending and amplifying the argument.