Joseph-Christian Leyendecker: Designing the American male

Leyendecker was born in 1874 in Montabaur, Germany, and was only 8 years old when his family moved to Chicago, Illinois. He then got back to Europe, enrolling for a year in the Académie Julian in Paris, where he was exposed to the work of Toulouse-LautrecJules Chéret, and also Alphonse Mucha. He came back to America in 1899, where he received his first cover commission for the then hugely popular Saturday Evening Post shortly after. His collaboration with the weekly publication will reveal as extremely fruitful as he will have designed more than 320 covers before the 1950’s.

So much for fame and power, illustrating the advertising campaigns for “The Arrow Collars and Shirts” company between 1907 and 1931, (not mentioning the superb imaging he did for Kuppenheimer’s menswear), Leyendecker introduced a new kind of man to the hungry American masses of the roaring 20’s:

On a first look, the British characteristics of its style are ever so finely chopped and reworked into bigger, broader and shinier volumes, starkly leaving behind whatever debris of self-loathe that so typically distinguishes the English sartorial approach to a male body.

Layendecker men are rich and beautiful: Glistening Kouroi with the most refined taste and the best connections, and “The Arrow Collar Man” is the man everyone wants to be (most importantly is the man everyone wants).

In this specific case, the model (and gossip o’clock, live in lover) for most of the illustrator’s work is Charles Beach, described by Normann Rockwell as “tall, powerfully built and extraordinarily handsome. He spoke with a clipped British accent and was always beautifully dressed – His manners were polished and impeccable”. He was Leyendecker’s ideal man, and on a broader scale, America’s ideal man.

Charles Beach, The Arrow Collar Man”, was then perceived as one of the first male sex symbols (this is also due to the shirt’s company being the most successful and most widespread brand of the time) and most definitely the first sex symbol of either gender in advertising. A virtual Beau Brummell, he led all the trends for menswear for decades: The future of the American male idealistically stepped onto the fashion scene with the birth of the “Arrow Collar” man. Few probably knew that such man was actually real, and was furthermore the artist long-term partner.

One of the peculiarities of the success of Leyendecker has indeed to be the rampaging yet subtle homoerotic nature of his illustration: he often portrayed his men in characteristic homo-social environments such as locker rooms, tailors or gentleman clubs, cleverly disguising the whole set up as a manly-men only sort of habitat.

But most importantly (most shockingly), the joke lies in the homoerotic gaze the characters cast on each other, in many cases just candidly ignoring the token feminine figure just to look straight into each other’s eyes.

What now feels like an inside joke thrown on the shoulders of the mass market, is indeed as strong now as it was then, think of Abercrombie and Fitch models that decide that “Yeah! Naked Greco-Roman fighting is like so cool and straight”.

However, for some obscure reason (obscure my ass, we’re talking full on pop culture we are) when asked to visualise “the utlimate American man”, we picture Mark Wahlberg 1992 circa in Calvin Klein’s brief, chromed Oakley’s and a white cap. Ok. Maybe James Dean smoking on his Harley waiting for any Peggy-Sue outside school ranks pretty high in the list, but you get the point.

And how not to mention another great American image of a man, the Ralph Lauren utilitarian bourgeoise in the Hamptons, accessorised with perfectly groomed dogs and super shiny white teeth.

But if you look closer, you will find that these examples all share the same precursor, a Look that cannot described any differently than “American Male”:

A specific image that effortlessly bridges the good looks and the physical stature of a Marky Mark in his prime, and the pensive Ivy League scion with dogs and cars and villas and white trousers.

And we are not just talking of a single image, sparse within the myriads of fragments of Americana that made it to this side of the pond; We are talking about the image of a man with a name and a solid social background: The Arrow Collar Man. And in the specific, we are talking about the illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker, whom invented it.

To see more of this fantastic artist’s work, why not visit THIS Tumblr?

By Matteo Sarti

Originally published on Lujon Issue 1