In “The Northman,” director Robert Eggers’s recently released Viking epic, Prince Amleth spends a chunk of the film’s two-plus hours shirtless. As the movie takes place in the early 10th century, the choice is in keeping with history. But it also seems intended to flaunt actor Alexander Skarsgård’s six-pack. In nearly every fight scene, the would-be king looks prepared for the CrossFit Games, or for having his trapezii captured in marble. (Mr. Skarsgård’s trainer told “Variety” that the actor gained 20 pounds of muscle for the role.)
If he could time travel into a department store today—and be convinced to put a shirt on—the immodest Amleth might like his options: men’s fashion has crossed into the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination era.
At the furthest end of scantiness are options from American designer Thom Browne and surf-steeped label Saturdays NYC, whose shirts are but a thin scrim over the torso. They manage to make a “free the nipple” expression while retaining a full-buttoned placket.
A touch more tame is the $1,370 gauzy-as-cheesecloth mesh shirt sold by Italian fashion empire Prada. Others offer a range of delicate lace, from Valentino’s $1,690 iteration to a sold-out $168 version by fledgling Los Angeles label No Maintenance.
The look has history. In warmer climates, the mesh shirt is a breeze-aiding staple. In the 2002 film “Paid in Full,” Rico (played by rapper Cam’ron) layers a slight lace shirt over a tank top—a look commonly seen during summer in sweltering cities like New York. At its extremes, the pec-flashing shirt can also allude to S&M attire, like the suggestive garb of Frank N. Furter in 1975’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
But this current crop of skin-revealing shirts speaks to how men (particularly, young men) embrace clothes that were traditionally siloed off in the women’s department.
“There’s more men being able to, or being comfortable doing something that was originally more feminine in the past,” said Zachary Banducci, 25, a software developer in Dallas. Mr. Banducci often wears a lace shirt with creased slacks and suede boots—an outfit that nods to the 1970s, perhaps the last time that revealing clothes dominated the pages of men’s magazines like GQ.
Julien Tanrattana, 32, a dentist in Paris, likewise said he feels very ’70s when he wears a lace shirt from New York’s Aimé Leon Dore beneath a lightweight blazer. He praised the button-up’s delicacy and noted with approval that it brought to mind the frilly placemats in his grandmother’s house.
Alessandro Michele, the creative director at Gucci since 2015, continues to deserve credit for recasting pussy-bow blouses, dainty Mary Janes and, yes, sheer shirting in the male wardrobe. Last month, Jared Leto, Hollywood’s mightiest Gucci fanboy (and paid ambassador of the brand), wore the label’s sheer shirt to a media event in Los Angeles.
But more than a high-fashion reverberation, the see-through shirt speaks to a personal willingness, even a desire, to show off one’s physique. (I should pause here to note that all the men I spoke with were on the fit side.)
“I think the older I get, the more confident I get in wearing whatever I want to,” said Rudy Arevalo, 39, an interior designer in Phoenix. Two years ago, he purchased a lace shirt from fast fashion retailer Asos, but was initially only comfortable layering it over a T-shirt. In recent months, after losing 35 pounds, he’s worn the shirt solo, the better to show the fruits of his exercise regime.
Kevin Montes’s lace shirt from Japanese label Niche lets his tattoos and chest hair through, even when coupled with a demure tank top. The 27-year-old tech recruiter in Houston associates the look with the late salsa musician Héctor Lavoe and said the style is “definitely more brash” than your standard summer shirt.
And as the warmer months creep in, there are practical benefits to translucent shirts. Both Mr. Montes and Mr. Banducci of Texas said they were drawn to lace shirts in part as a way to combat Texas’s unrelenting heat. After all, a sheer shirt is as close as you can get to wearing no shirt at all.
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