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Manning up

As the testosterone turns: The new retrosexual gets that strong and gallant guy thing going again.

Signs of the manly man: A Dockers ad (left); law student Leo Mulvihill, who favors vintage suits and hats (top right); and a Saks Fifth Avenue ad shot at a raceway. (Photos provided)
Signs of the manly man: A Dockers ad (left); law student Leo Mulvihill, who favors vintage suits and hats (top right); and a Saks Fifth Avenue ad shot at a raceway. (Photos provided)Read more

Leo Mulvihill looks the classic man's man.

The hat is one clue. Displaying an old-school flair for style, the 25-year-old law student at Drexel University walks around campus sporting a vintage Brooks Brothers three-piecer and authentic 1960s Florsheims, his trilby cocked just so.

The elegant look from another era makes a suave statement and exudes a certain authority - evoking equal parts image and lifestyle that a growing number of young men are hungry to adopt.

"I think it's important to recognize that clothes don't make the man," said Mulvihill, who lives in East Kensington with his wife. "But a man of character and integrity who embodies traditional principles of etiquette will never be hurt by dressing well."

Gentlemen, a "menaissance," as one blogger describes it, is under way, and the classically clad "retrosexual" is leading the charge.

Think of him as the anti-metrosexual, the opposite of that guy who emerged in the 1990s in all his pedicured, moussed-up, skinny-jeans glory. That man-boy was searching for his inner girl, it was argued. The retrosexual, however, wants to put the man back into manhood.

In other words, the boy wants to grow up, trading adolescent behaviors - working in a coffee shop, hanging with girls instead of dating them, and worrying about his hair - for a man who can take care of business, according to Josh Weil, cofounder of Youth Trends in Ramsey, N.J., who has tweeted about the macho-man look.

"I'm a strong guy, I'm very comfortable with who I am, I'm carrying around a little attitude," he said, describing the philosophy.

Say goodbye to the sensitive guy who cries at the drop of a pink tee, or the slacker living with his mother, playing video games. This new man has ambition and aplomb, brawn and brains.

Think Cary Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, or Ernest Hemingway.

"For thousands of years, being a man meant being honorable, having courage, having competence," said Brett McKay, 27, a law school graduate turned blogger who writes "The Art of Manliness" from Tulsa, Okla. "Till the 1950s, manliness meant action and a force for good."

Then, feminism disturbed that order. "We created this new world where men and women were equal," McKay said. "A lot of men were confused. What was my role now?"

The result was that some men thought "feminism . . . made them wusses," said Katherine Anderson, a doctoral student in cultural studies at George Mason University who has written about shifting male gender roles.

The manly-man creed is a way to regain man's position in society. "Retrosexual is all about 'I am Man. Hear me roar!' " Anderson said.

It's sensitive territory, certainly.

The movement's love affair with a time that was not always kind to women or minorities, and that rigidly defined men - as the hard-drinking, womanizing Mad Men character Don Draper, for all his dapperness, showcases - has some social observers concerned.

"It's nostalgia for a past that never was," said Gordon Coonfield, director of media studies at Villanova University who teaches about gender and media culture. "It's a convenient oversimplification of a past with which, arguably, we were probably well done."

McKay and other retrosexual adherents, however, are quick to insist that they have no desire to reset the clocks to a time when women were largely excluded from the workforce and expected to stay home with the babies.

Instead, they want to hold doors open and pay for dates without worries of chauvinism, even as they split the kitchen duties.

"It's a man who looks to the past for inspiration about what it means to be a man, taking the best from that time and leaving the cultural garbage, like sexism, racism, and homophobia, behind," said McKay, who, with his wife, Kate, wrote the 2009 book The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man.

His wife agreed. "I'm tired of babying these man-boys," she said. "I want a man who has it together."

Nancy Powell, 24, wife of the Drexel student, echoed the sentiment in favor of values from an earlier time. "I appreciate it as a countermovement to the Abercrombie frat-boy trend," said the paralegal, who is attending Temple University. "I feel proud to walk down the street on my husband's arm."

As evidence of the retrosexual's arrival, Brett McKay points to the resurgence among his peers of smoking tobacco pipes, shaving with a brush and razor, and joining fraternal societies such as the Freemasons.

"I've learned how to change the oil in my car, how to rotate the tires . . . how to shoot a gun," McKay said. "This is a manly thing to do."

At Groom in Center City, younger men have ditched the unisex salons for a classic haircut or straight-razor shave in this barbershop that evokes the 1920s. Soft notes of jazz play as background to the short, textured cuts owner and barber Joe McMenamin offers for a reasonable $25 within the white and slate-gray walls of the shop.

"Joe's a barber. He gives a real haircut," said banker Chad Thompson, 35, of Center City, as McMenamin trimmed his hair and straight-razored the back of his neck. A salon's "a little too prissy for me."

Even though the retrosexual philosophy shuns excessive consumption (a metrosexual hallmark) as weak and soft, a man still has plenty of products to choose from - now with the promise to make him more manly.

Old Spice - this is your grandfather's scent - has hopped the man train with its "Smell Like a Man, Man" campaign.

"Don't smell like sunsets and baby powder," urges one ad for, ironically, body wash. "Smell like jet fighters and punching."

During the Super Bowl, Dodge tapped modern man's plight for its "Man's Last Stand" commercial. Blank-faced, beaten-down guys lament their emasculated state: "I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave. . . . I will put the seat down. . . . I will carry your lip balm." But a man, the ad concludes, still gets to pick his ride, in this case a Dodge Charger that zooms off into the hills.

" 'Man's Last Stand' is a reflection of contemporary social frustrations, be it at home or at the office," said Saad Chehab, head of group advertising for Chrysler Group. It defines masculinity as a "sense of power and resurgence of confidence."

Of course, real men eat beef, probably at one of those big steak houses popping up on every corner; do the dirty jobs (or at least watch Mike Rowe's Dirty Jobs); and wear the pants, as Dockers' new tagline reminds.

"It celebrates men who can change a tire and a diaper," said Jennifer Sey, vice president of global marketing at Dockers in San Francisco.

Sey, a Philadelphia native, said her own life reflects the varied functions of the genders. "I work, and my husband stays home with our kids," she said. This modern dynamic "does impact men's roles."

Many are left asking, "What is a man, if the woman can do all the same things that a man can do?" said Justin Sitron, a clinical assistant professor of education and human sexuality at Widener University. "Masculinity has been in a period of exploration in the last 20 to 25 years."

The 1950s man who never showed his emotions was one option, he said. Then the pendulum swung in the other direction and the metrosexual evolved, he said. Neither is ideal.

"Just as we need masculine, rugged men," Sitron said, "we need men who are caretakers and providers in other ways, and everything in between."

Some think the retrosexual fulfills all those roles - with confidence.