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Man cleavage -- plunging necklines slit open to reveal chest hair, pectoral muscles, maybe more -- is back. Until recently, male décolletage was an androgynous fashion affectation limited mainly to sporadic appearances on European runways. But the look, including deep V-necks and scoop-neck tops, hit the U.S. in full force at New York's September Fashion Week, turning up at shows by Duckie Brown, Michael Bastian and Yigal Azrouël.
his time around, the styles were more blatantly sexual and the models had a more studly swagger. New York designer Mr. Bastian said his show's vibe was inspired in part by "Latin guys" he noticed wearing their shirts unbuttoned, as well as the unabashed machismo of Latin American men in general. "We wanted to go back to a more natural body, a more '70s body with the models, getting away from the super skinny," says Mr. Bastian.
Plenty of men, from regular Joes to "Dancing With the Stars" contestants, have loosened to the trend. On HBO's hit series "True Blood," 29-year-old ex-model Mehcad Brooks rarely went an episode without removing his shirt. Mr. Brooks also frequently displays his perfect pecs off-screen, wearing rib-hugging T's with deep V-necks or shirts with the top buttons suggestively undone. "Even if people were making fun of me, calling me 'Miami Vice' like they used to in college, I would still wear it," says the 6-foot-4, 215-pound actor. "It feels comfortable and I like the way it looks. If you can pull off three buttons undone, then do it." Other fans of the look include actors Jude Law and Ed Westwick, who've been snapped showing off their man cleavage -- or "heavage," as one style writer dubbed it. "Harper's Bazaar's Stephen Gan is working the new male cleavage in a low-cut T-shirt; it's called 'heavage,'" tweeted Hilary Alexander, fashion director of Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, in early October while at a runway show in Paris. Mr. Gan, who, aptly enough, is also the editor of a magazine called "V," says, "I think I'm allowed to dress this way."
Vik Mohindra, a 27-year-old graduate student from Toronto, confesses that his guy friends sometimes tease him about his heavage. "I would not recommend it to someone who isn't confident with their body and overall sense of style," says Mr. Mohindra, who says he works out three to four days a week and has a "defined" chest. Male cleavage, particularly on the silver screen, has long played a prominent role in popular culture. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had his chest on display throughout the 1920s in films like 1924's "The Thief of Bagdad" and "The Iron Mask" in 1929. A dashing Errol Flynn showed man cleavage in the 1930s, most memorably in 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood." These actors made skin-flashing practically de rigueur for certain swashbuckling roles. The aesthetic continued well into the 1950s and the 1960s, says menswear historian Robert Bryan, author of the new book "American Fashion Menswear." Among those celebrated for their heavage were Marlon Brando (in the 1951 film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire") and Sean Connery as James Bond in the 1960s. The last time man cleavage was so prevalent in the U.S. was in the 1970s -- "the golden age of male chest hair," says Mr. Bryan. Epitomized by John Travolta in 1977's "Saturday Night Fever," the convention back then was to skip enough shirt buttons to show off a thick forest of hair, perhaps topped with a gold medallion as a sign of virility.
After decades in the fashion equivalent of Siberia, man cleavage got a boost in the early 1990s when Tom Ford, then head designer and creative director for Gucci, climbed to the top of fashion's ranks while often wearing a dress shirt unbuttoned practically to his navel. It still took years for the fad to go more mainstream. Helping to pave the way were magazines like Men's Journal and Men's Health, which objectified the male torso on their covers. Marketers such as Abercrombie & Fitch attracted droves of fans with their buff, waxed male models. For those who don't have the goods naturally, cosmetic surgery offers an increasingly popular solution. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that pectoral implants more than tripled in 2008, to 1,335 procedures up from 440 in 2007.
Brad Wieners, editor-in-chief of Men's Journal magazine, believes that the magazine has made guys feel more comfortable about wearing more fitted clothes and styles that show that they work out. Mr. Wieners notes that for a recent cover shoot, actor Alec Baldwin donned a shirt open at the collar, subtly revealing chest hair. "He's not Burt Reynolds," says the editor. "But he's letting you know he's got a chest." The latest resurrection of man cleavage does raise a not-so insignificant issue: to wax or not? For a number of years, any male chest hair was considered a fashion don't, but very recently a thin thatch has become quite acceptable. The low-cut look "is better if you have a little chest hair," says Tyler Thoreson, a New York-based men's style consultant. "It's not about showing off chest hair, it's about it peeking out a little bit." Robert Caponi, a 32-year-old musician in Greensboro, N.C., isn't taking any chances. In order to get the hair-to-skin ratio just right, he shaves his chest every two weeks or so -- a regimen that helps him to feel comfortable in one of the six deep V-neck shirts he owns. Not all styles fit the bill. After purchasing a wide scoop neck recently, he declared it simply too revealing. "I looked in the mirror and I was disgusted," he says. Some women share the sentiment. Posting on her blog earlier this year, Ketty Colom, a 22-year-old college student in Orlando, Fla., vented about the burst of men sporting heavage. "Leave it to the bedroom," she said. "I don't want to see your chest."