Hugo Rifkind

It’s the summer of the topless man – and there’s nothing we can do to stop it

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

Topless men. What does that mean, then? I was opposite one on the tube the other day, heading north from Finsbury Park, and I just couldn’t stop -staring.

In terms of sheer comfort, I was quite jealous. There was me, sweating in my shirt and suit trousers, and there was him, open to the air in shorts and nothing else. He was sweating too, of course. As I watched, a rivulet of the stuff ran from his neck and through the thicket of his chest to hang as a globule from a thatch of hair above his right nipple. Frankly, that globule made me anxious. Any moment, I knew, our train would burst into the overland sunshine of Arnos Grove and I feared it might function as a lens, perhaps even setting him alight.

Men are stripping off. There’s no point in denying it, because it is definitely happening. Nor, really, even decrying it. The naked hordes of Oxford Street, alas, are not going to read a strongly worded column in The Spectator and put their shirts back on. It’s been coming for a while, but now it has incontrovertibly come. Male flesh has been set free.

The Panglossian in me wants to see this as a good thing. I was rewatching Zulu the other week. My God but a British man used to be expected to wear a lot of clothes, eh? Out there in the baking sun, facing an African army clad mainly in leaves, Michael Caine and the rest of them are trussed up like Beefeaters.


This is pure class, and I don’t mean that in a good way. A topless woman has connotations of a different sort, but a topless man has always suggested manual labour. Backpacking in India long ago, I remember reading guidebook advice that I ought not to wear shorts, because such things, to the respectable Indian, were a signifier of low caste. Naked chests in Britain are something similar. Or at least they were.

So what changed? Is it nothing more than a sweeping dissolution of decorum? Maybe, but it’s swept quite far. Stroll out across Hampstead Heath and the rich are just the same. You can tell they’re rich because their tattoos are smaller, and they wear linen drawstring trousers rather than tracksuit bottoms, and they tend to be shouting at an identifiably higher class of dog. Indeed, it’s swept even to women. Earlier this year, the New York Police Department circulated a memo reminding officers that women are as entitled to be topless in public as men; a law tested last week in a Lower Manhattan bistro, to the delight of tabloid newspapers, by a model called Cheyenne Lutek. I can’t decide if that’s political correctness gone mad or finally gone sane. But it must be one or the other.

In a way, it’s actually a lot easier for women, because they have a choice. If you like, you could see the soaring trend for male toplessness as the lecherous patriarchy, of which I am a part, shooting itself in the foot. Women, objectified for ever, have learned to glide through the summer in shift-dresses and chiffon. We’ve got nothing like that. For us it’s full truss or nothing at all.

Still, times are changing and the gender wars are drawing to a close. Male nudity could be only the first step. Maybe one day I’ll trot along to The Spectator’s wonderful summer party and come across the current mayor of London sipping champagne while cooling in the breeze in hotpants and a bra top. Yes, I know it’s not everyone’s dream, but it’s mine.

Rowling thunder

I mean, look, it’s not like I ever doubted the word of J.K. Rowling. The woman is a modern-day saint and does no end of good for charity and the horribly disadvantaged, even going as far as being actual friends with Gordon Brown. So if she says she wanted to keep it a secret that she was writing books as Robert Galbraith and is sad that the world has discovered this, then I believe her.

What I struggled to believe, though, was that somebody, somewhere, wasn’t pulling a fast one. I mean, sure, Rowling herself doesn’t need the money. But were we really supposed to believe that a publisher, having snared a women whose last Harry Potter book sold 44 million copies, was going to be content with one that sold 43.9985 million fewer?

Apparently they were, at least for a while. Inasmuch as one can make out, Little, Brown was planning a big reveal in a book or two, and is now rushing to reprint, having been utterly caught on the hop. I don’t know why I take so much pleasure in knowing this. I suppose it’s the hack in me. I thought, at first, that this was the triumph of spin over journalism. Whereas actually, happily, it sounds more like the reverse.

 

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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  • Chris Harker

    I wouldn’t mind but only a tiny percentage of the topless men have torso’s like the one in your headline banner.

    • SpringWinder

      You’re factually correct, but

      I wonder whether it is the same guy, using different user names, who tours the various web sites that discusses this sort of topic, making the very same point. He even seems to be a ‘she’ sometimes. I’ve even seen he/she commenting in both the Daily Mail and the Guardian.

      I mean to say, really, that in the overall scheme of things, it isn’t the greatest offence or tragedy that befalls mankind. So much so that it doesn’t really warrant making the same point again and again, albeit with minor flourishes.

      It’s a pity that if we were to be a bit more tolerant towards such peccadilloes that the fitter-looking semi-naked men would not shame those of us who aren’t to get our fingers out and actually do something about our health.

      And yes, I guess, that is a form of “body fascism”. I refuse to accept that all such peer pressure is bad.

  • malcolmboura

    Lurking just below the surface of this article is a very damaging message. The UK has appalling outcomes compared to the rest of Europe for all the body-image and body-knowledge related indicator and the reasons are well understood. The prudification of society is a serious and growing problem. This article may be entertaining but it is also a missed opportunity to do some good.

    • george

      It’s nothing to do with prudery, M. (Or I, standing for another word ending with T and an O, N, and D somewhere in the mix.) Prudishness is an outdated concept. It assumes that people, going to extremes in their idea of decorum, restraint, and virtue, don’t wish to acknowledge the facts either in public or in private. But in our century, there is nowhere to escape anything — whether facts, interpretation, or outright lies about our nature — either in public or in private. Virtue, as such, is given scarcely any respect or acknowledgement, and certainly no arena. Prudery in the 21st century is an impossibility. You will have to find some other scapegoat, I’m afraid.

  • Lamdba

    Why not? …particularly in this heat…

  • john

    ‘Full truss or nothing at all’? What about a light cotton open-necked short-sleeved shirt (with or without sweat-absorbing white cotton T underneath) and tastefully patterned or unpatterned cotton shorts? And sandals (no socks, of course!). Very light and airy.

    Agree about the toplessness, though. A lot of people seem unaware that those not loving and living with them would really prefer to see less of their anatomy, not as much as the law allows. The more I see of human beings, for instance at the beach, the more unattractive I think they are. In fact, when you see them at the beach, tattoos blaring, it makes one wonder why people are so keen to take an already compromised beginning (the human form, with its gangly limbs, funny means of locomotion, and largely uncute face) and make it even uglier with skin discolouration.

    The two are linked — tattoos, which used to be unsavoury things, and men going shirtless. It’s a symptom of the coarsening of society.

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