Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

The prom tux: Turning teen boys into inexpressive men?

Parenting, Gender RolesAndrew Smiler

It’s Prom season. I feel bad for the boys.

From the hype, and from my own experience back in the mid-1980s, prom is a Big Day for many teen girls. Today, it’s enough of a big deal that Ryan Seacrest’s nationally syndicated radio show, in addition to countless local organizations, offer programs to help girls from low-income families afford fabulous, if slightly used, dresses. There’s almost no discussion about the guys who go to prom with those girls and I’m not aware of any programs that help boys get appropriately duded up. But they too have pressure to look good, and that usually means a black tux.

Fortunately, many girls color-code their guys through bowties and cummerbunds.

If you’re watching everyone arrive, or you’re in the hall for the big event, there’s little that differentiates one guy from the next except for hair and height. Fortunately, many girls color-code their guys through bowties and cummerbunds. The more fashionable may also have handkerchiefs or pocket squares.

Here’s my problem: clothing is a form of expression. It sends messages about who we are and, possibly, how we feel. In Frozen, Anna’s joy at the opening of the gates and impending ball is mirrored by the bounce in her skirt. At the extreme, the message clothing sends can be mis-interpreted by people who argue that a girl or woman who dresses in a certain way is “asking” to get raped.

So what message do tuxedoes send?

Color: Like the old Model T, “it comes in any color you want as long as it’s black.” If there’s a message in that color, it’s one of seriousness, not joy or fun. Prom should be fun.

Movement: Women’s clothing has the potential for movement and thus has the ability to tell us something about her mood, like Anna’s skirt. Tuxedoes don’t. So, no message.

Shape: All tuxes have the same shape and it’s the shape of a man’s body, but not necessarily the shape of the boy wearing it. If he wants, he can get a fitted (vs. standard) shirt to go under that jacket, but that’s about it. For any guy who’s been working hard on his chest, abs, or “guns,” there’s no real way to show that off while wearing a tux. In other words, his body is hidden, not shown or expressed. Again, no message.

Attention: There are a few reasons why people get dressed up. One is to look good for their sweetie. Another is to look good to everyone else, to be the person who walks in and draws everyone’s eye. That’s the spectacle on display on the red carpet. And it’s a competition that’s almost entirely limited to women. For the record, I appreciate the fact that the networks now ask guys about their tuxes, even if those conversations are rather stilted. But when you’re wearing the same uniform as everyone else, you don’t attract any attention. In fact, being in uniform helps send the message that the person wearing it is less important than the uniform itself.

If you put it all together, the message he’s sending to the wider world while wearing the standard black tux is that his appearance and his mood are of little or no importance; it’s not about him, it’s about the tux. The corollary is that if you want to know something about him, you need to pay attention to what he says or does. I hope his date doesn’t subscribe to that public message, much as I hope he’s interested in more than her appearance and body.

The message he’s sending to the wider world while wearing the standard black tux is that his appearance and his mood are of little or no importance; it’s not about him, it’s about the tux.

In some ways, the prom tux – often a guy’s first tux – is just the first act in a longer drama that straight guys live out. If he can’t express himself at prom, then he’s going to find himself playing the same secondary role every Valentine’s Day and at his own wedding. Like prom, those events are ostensibly about couples but in practice are often about her.

To the extent that we want guys to be more in touch with their feelings and express them, we need to give them the space to express themselves in formal settings, and not just with accent pieces like bowties and pocket squares.

This is important because emotional expression is central to creating lasting friendships and romantic relationships. A guy’s best friend, whether he’s 18 or 80, is someone that he can tell about his feelings – his worries, his loves, his sadnesses, and his excitement. In the beginning of her book on teen boys’ friendships, Niobe Way talks about the challenges boys face in connecting with each other and the dramatic difference that having just one good friend makes.

It also impacts men’s health. Therapist and author Jed Diamond describes men as “the lonely sex” and says that loneliness is a hidden killer of men. In Dying to Be Men, Will Courtenay talks about how this lack of expression contributes to the fact that men die about 7 years younger than women.

To be clear, I’m not saying that guys should start wearing dresses, although if that’s a guy’s preference, he should be allowed to do so. Rather, I’m saying that we need to find and create ways for boys and men to express their feelings, verbally and non-verbally. We – and our kids – can change our reactions to guys who wear something other than the standard black tux. Instead of giving that guy grief, we can praise him for taking a risk – and isn’t taking risks something that guys are supposed to do? We might also ask what’s so great about looking like everyone else? That’s something the girls are very clearly trying to avoid.

If we’re serious about dismantling the manbox, let’s take down the formal straightjacket known as a tuxedo.

As adults, we can support our sons when they wear something a little unconventional, like pants that are not black, brown, navy, tan, or grey. We might even wear those colors ourselves. As we do with our daughters, we can help them think through the messages their clothes are sending, ask if a piece of clothing makes them feel more confident (or better or whatever), and ask what body parts those clothes are showing off. The latter should be accompanied by occasional conversations about airbrushing, which happens for both female and male models.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that prom is easy or better for girls, or that wearing a tuxedo is the biggest challenge guys face when it comes to prom. But if we’re serious about dismantling the manbox, let’s take down the formal straightjacket known as a tuxedo.

-photo by Bikes And Books/flickr