The Measure

Exploring what it means to be a better man.

What “American Gigolo” Taught Us About Men’s Style

How one movie forever changed the way American men see themselves.

October 7th, 2015
What “American Gigolo” Taught Us About Men’s Style

An "American Gigolo" movie poster from Paramount Pictures, 1980.

It was 1980. The sun was setting on disco and Donna Summer was having her “Last Dance.” It was the age of broad collars, openly audacious shirts, raging forests of chest hair, thick gold necklaces, bad cologne, bad hair, bulging crotches, and obviousness.  

The 1970’s “Me Generation,” with its in-your-face-style and look-at-me bravado, was still celebrating the end of the repressive expression it grew up with in the 50s and 60s.  If the “Rock and Roll” 50’s and “Flower Power” 60’s were a war for a generation’s right to define its own culture, music, fashion and self-expression, then the 1970s was its victory celebration.  

The mythological machismo of John Wayne’s cowboy and Sean Connery’s James Bond had given way to a lighter, cartoonish, good ol’ boy machismo in Burt Reynolds and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later ruggedness in Clint Eastwood. Gay men were dancing out of the closet in droves, never to go back in.  

Then suddenly, the party stopped. 

The 70s were over.  

Nobody knew where to go next.  

Ronald Reagan was elected president. He was the first Republican since Watergate, which signaled the country had healed and was going in a new cultural direction. To where?  

Hippies had become Yuppies and were far more concerned with their Mercedes and 401Ks than communes and sit-ins. Then suddenly a bomb dropped, blowing up style and fashion, in a way America had never seen before. Kaboom!

A film by the name of American Gigolo came out and changed forever how American men saw themselves. An extremely young and extremely good-looking Richard Gere starred in it. Gere played a gigolo named Julian Kaye, whose job is to sexually satisfy lonely, wealthy Beverly Hills wives. He was extremely successful in this trade, but emotionally empty in his life.  He was framed for a murder and had to clear his name, but the movie isn’t about that. It’s about watching this spectacular-looking man, with spectacular style, leading the life of a sexual super hero and having the wealthiest women fall at his feet.  

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His short, neat hair and angelically clean-shaven face sparkled like a Christmas ornament on top of his crème grey linen shirts, crepe wool form-fitting jackets, and subtly elegant knit ties. In one scene, Julian prepared for a night out by laying and matching all his clothes on his bed, primping to a Smokey Robinson song, feeling the culmination of all his super powers. No man watching knew about clothing like he did, but they knew everything matched correctly and if they couldn’t figure out why they’d lose out to guys who did.

Julian Kaye showed that this is where real power came from: not from shooting bad guys or punching them out. Julian Kaye cared about his looks the way a woman did. He was pretty. He was pouty. He was vulnerable. He exercised to look better. We all took notes. We all wanted to be just like him, but we knew we never would. Richard Gere understood that the key to playing Julian Kaye was his femininity. John Wayne had none. Clint Eastwood had none.  

Julian Kaye made it safe for heterosexual men to care more about their looks, to be both pretty and masculine. This made careers possible for Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Colin Farrell, Jared Leto, Ryan Gosling, and so on.

So do yourself a favor and honor one of the biggest moments in screen history from the 20th century.  Rent “American Gigolo,”  turn the lights down low and watch it on a big screen.  

Don’t be afraid to pause it and rewind it as many times as necessary to study Julian Kaye. Don’t be afraid to admire his style and clothes (which still look amazing decades later).  Don’t be afraid to be jealous of his pretty-boy good looks. Don’t even be afraid to wish you were him. But most of all, next time you stand in front of a mirror, before going somewhere important, admiring just how damned good you look, give a little respect to Richard Gere in “American Gigolo.”  He helped get you here.

Then go knock ‘em dead.

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