Net Shop Boys

Menswear sites can offer a rare window into how cis men perform gender for each other

Every so often, when the algorithm decides that I am male, I’m served ads on my Twitter feed for remote personal stylist services. Cheaper than personal shoppers who work face-to-face with their clients, these monthly subscription sites market themselves like Blue Apron; they’re for people who’d like to dress well, but don’t want to spend time rifling through the racks, just as Blue Apron caters to those who aspire to cook well without setting foot in a grocery store. You punch in your measurements and preferences and let someone — the marketing emphasizes that there’s a real person on the other side of the screen, often depicted as a woman — pick out a box of clothes for you. When it comes in the mail, you pay for the articles you’d like to keep, plus a “styling fee,” and send the rest back.

Companies like Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, and Frank & Oak offer these services to both men and women, and while my government ID suggests I’m the latter, I’ve only been served ads tailored to men. These web spots suggest that the service removes an obviously undesirable obstacle (shopping) to an obviously desirable goal (looking good). Stitch Fix’s introductory lingo promises, in clipped commands, “Save time. Look great.” The service is identical for each gender, but the company bifurcates its marketing: Women sign up for a friend, while men sign up for a technology. Women receive their packages with “a personal note written by your Stylist;” men receive an unfussy stack of clothes.

Women sign up for a friend, while men sign up for a technology. Women receive their packages with “a personal note written by your Stylist;” men receive an unfussy stack of clothes

The idea that shopping for clothes is an inherently feminine activity — for men, it’s at best a nuisance, at worst emasculating — saturates American culture. It’s the premise to many a sitcom gag, as well as viral YouTube clips like “Shoes.” Even the layouts of department stores like Macy’s or Nordstrom indicate that for women, shopping is leisure and entertainment, accompanied by bright, glittering displays and wide varieties of products. For men, it’s work, performed among spare racks, bright spotlights, and solemn browns and blues, something you do to get done and get on with your life. A 2004 study performed by researchers at the University of Wollongong indicates that men are far more likely to be “hunter” shoppers who enter a store to procure a single, needed item and then leave, while women act as “gatherers” who linger in stores, often with a group of friends, and find pleasure in making spontaneous purchases.

Stitch Fix and its ilk assume that men would rather avoid shopping, but other digital startups employ a newer script. Rather than encourage shoppers to hunt down their prey and bolt, retailers like the online luxury fashion outlet Ssense, which caters to both men and women, have recently introduced robust editorial sections to their websites, inviting shoppers to read up on the cultural contexts of the clothes they buy. And the site Grailedpart social network, part editorial outlet, and part resale store — similarly operates on the premise that there exist men who actually enjoy shopping for (and lusting after) clothing.

Like a niche eBay, Grailed allows individual users to buy and sell items, with no structural distinction made between full-time, high-volume sellers and people who just clean out their closet sometimes. More than traditional online retailers, who sell from a position of impermeable authority, Grailed facilitates an intimacy among its participants that contradicts cultural norms concerning men and their clothes. Because anything you can buy there necessarily comes from another person, not a store, communication on the site flows bidirectionally. Instead of dictating gender to men with well-funded, deeply researched marketing campaigns, Grailed offers a rare window into how cis men perform gender for each other.

Fashion is necessarily an aspirational industry; you’re always supposed to want more clothing, preferably clothing a little better than what you already have. Moreso than many consumer products, clothes themselves hold an embodied potential. They’re visual signifiers enmeshed with the body — they transform the body, allow the body access to specific spaces, enable communication with certain people. In their advertising materials, designers and retailers stimulate consumers’ aspirational fantasies — maybe Polo makes you long for the chance to throw a yacht party, or Balmain for an invitation to an exclusive cocktail bar. These fantasies are powerful, but also broad and often sterilized. The models look superhuman, broadcasting their wares from a plane somewhere beyond our own. The peer-to-peer fashion market, conversely, operates without such a stark power imbalance. Sellers on Grailed are individuals or small businesses, not industry powerhouses. Their communication is limited and rife with human flaws — motion blur, spelling errors, awkward poses under beautiful clothes. The products might still be costly on the resale marketplace, but they’re sold via a whisper, not a megaphone.

Grailed emphasizes the sale of luxury clothing — its editorial section is full of primers on high-end designers like Rei Kawakubo and Rick Owens — but it permits the listing of just about anything you can wear. It divides its wares into three sections: “Grails” is where you find the good stuff, like Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Balmain; “Hype” offers brand new streetwear from outlets like Supreme, scooped up IRL and sold at a profit; and “Core” is everything else. Load the homepage and by default you’ll only see Grails, but like on eBay, the dregs reward a thorough comb. Buyers rate transactions, enabling a reputational system for sellers, but both purchases and sales add to the tally next to any given username, marking every user by the volume of their activity on the network. You can “like” a particular item by clicking a heart icon to monitor its price, which may drop, and you can follow sellers whose offerings you like, rendering a chronological stream of  items similar to Twitter’s timeline or Facebook’s news feed.

Like any sufficiently active online community, Grailed has its own vernacular and customs. Some of the lingo is baked into the interface — hilariously, the site’s shoe section is called “footwear,” and there’s a whole different tab for “sneakers.” But slang appears within individual listings, too, much of it overlapping the language used on men’s style forums. Leather jackets become “leathers,” as in, “I’m only selling this because I have too many leathers.” A new batch of sweatpants from Palm Angels or Needles is a “drop,” a word shared with gamers slaughtering bosses for the loot. TTS stands for “true to size,” BNWT is “brand new with tags,” and so on. The language is utilitarian enough, but also strikingly specific. Unlike eBay, whose listings run the gamut from hyperdetailed descriptions with high-res photos to a few tossed-off words, Grailed offers a consistent and individuated browsing experience even for people who prefer to window shop.

Most listings include more or less standard information about the item being sold, but certain sellers inject personality and backstory into the text of their listings, describing where the item was purchased, how many times it’s been worn, and why they’re letting it go. Some stage their photos against pleasing backdrops in their homes, modeling clothes in a light-drenched living room full of houseplants, a copy of Swann’s Way or Infinite Jest left conspicuously on a nearby coffee table. These details reduce the aspirational aesthetics of professional fashion campaigns to an individual scale. Sellers may be performing in front their own cameras in hopes of offloading their wares, but their props and sets are limited to what they already own and the space in which they already live.

Clothes themselves hold an embodied potential. They’re visual signifiers enmeshed with the body. Grailed is an aperture, albeit a narrow one, into how men resolve their bodies with the world

Popular sellers tend to infuse their listings with sumptuous details, not only in the photos, out of which their faces tend to be cropped or blurred, but in the descriptions. A leather jacket is never just a leather jacket, and because potential buyers can’t feel it themselves, a well-worded description is key. Sellers detail the weight of the leather, whether it’s soft or stiff, and the sensory experience that accompanies touching it. The best leather jackets, the ones that go for thousands of dollars used, tend to be “juicy” or “oily,” though some are “blistered,” i.e. deliberately cracked. “The details on the leather is [sic] breathtaking and so alive — the most tremendous leather job from Rick’s hand!” reads a listing for a 2009 Rick Owens jacket, originally up for $3,300. “This jacket is literally like a piece of art; you can stare at the leather for hours and always find new cracking details and skin in bloom.” That anyone would gaze into a leather jacket for hours seems unlikely, but that a seller would hint at this experience indicates a particular expression of masculinity: a masculinity that encompasses the appreciation of beauty and sensuality, a masculinity beyond strict utilitarian behavior.

The amateur photoshoots and breathless descriptions open up a particular pathos among the men who sell on Grailed. They expose small perforations into their interior, individual lives — the way they decorate their homes, how they carry themselves, their tattoos. The tenor of the site allows room for an automatic intimacy among the men who use it (there are some women in the ranks, but not many, from what I can tell). In one of my first interactions on the marketplace, a seller called me “bro,” a gesture I found both disarming and charming. There’s no information about me on my profile, no photos of my body — why wouldn’t I be a bro? It was like he was saying, we’re all boys here, it’s okay.

That American masculinity considers shopping a taboo speaks, in a way, to its parameters, its limits. Derided as superficial and frivolous, shopping is in fact often a process of serious consideration about how you modulate your body in the world, how the interior life can be communicated by way of the visible presence. The cliché question — “does this make me look fat?” — has serious ramifications once you get at what’s inside it: Will I be socially ostracized for how I look? Will the way I present myself render me undesirable? When teen girls shop together, they learn from each other how best to articulate themselves to ensure their future social and emotional survival.

By encouraging sociality in shopping for clothing, Grailed punctures the isolation of American masculinity. Unlike subscription-based clothing startups, it presumes no shame among its members; instead, it fosters excitement about choosing their own clothes, guided by their peers. When I use it to contextualize my own strange, inchoate masculinity, I browse unencumbered by images of ultra-ripped, testosterone-ripe cis men that populate the pages of many traditional online retailers — idealized bodies that bear very little resemblance to most other cis men, let alone me. Grailed is an aperture, albeit a narrow one, into how men negotiate their masculinity, how they resolve their bodies with the world. The quirks in their performance, where I can find them, act as ruptures in a gender that’s mythologized as self-evident, never practiced, never learned. These holes are doors. They are a way in.

Sasha Geffen is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, an analysis of queerness and gender nonconformity in the past century of popular music. Their writing attends to the intersections of gender, pop culture, the body, and technology, and has been published in Artforum, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Boston, they now live in Colorado.