Catalog cover

Remembering the underwear catalog that shaped a generation

For gay men who came of age in the 1970s through the early 1990s, hiding the “International Male” catalog, which somehow seemed to magically appear in the family mailbox, became a rite of passage. “All Man: The International Male Story” examines the genesis of the catalog and its continued cultural relevance – and the story told here ends up being more complex than it first appears.

Co-directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed and writer Peter Jones manage to cover a lot of territory in a compact 83 minutes, while striking the same balance between sexy and particular that makes the catalog such a difficult artifact to parse. . of his time.

It all started in the mind of Gene Burkard, interviewed here as an elderly man who remembers spending the whole night hiding under a gay bar table to avoid arrest. Burkard grew up in the post-war era of the novel and movie “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” a time when men had to wear some sort of uniform and stick to a certain figure. “If you were wearing a blue shirt, there was something wrong,” says writer Christopher Harrity, one of many lively and provocative commentators here.

Things began to ease for Burkard when he lived in San Diego in the 1970s. A pivotal moment came when he saw medical underwear called a suspensor in a store window and had the idea that if he made a few little tweaks to it, it could make for a pair of sexy men’s underwear. My own backed up copy of the 1992 catalog still sold this model and called it Sport Strap. It still looks extremely sexy as it has thin straps in the front as well as the back, giving an effect that is almost like what a garter belt can be for a woman.

Burkard began mailing the catalog in the mid-1970s, and boosted sales significantly by running an ad in Playboy magazine. The documentary makes it clear that Burkard was not commercially minded and preferred to have fun and be creative. So he had key colleagues like Gloria Tomita to help him in what quickly became a thriving business.

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International Male opened brick-and-mortar stores, and we’re told 75% of the clientele were women (including, they say, Barbra Streisand) buying clothes to make their men sexy at the nightclub. Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown is seen on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ saying that women will soon view men as sex objects. Cavett reacted in a frankly incredulous manner, but the culture was changing.

Almost all of the models photographed for the catalog were heterosexual, and some of those models are interviewed in “All Man” to talk about their discomfort wearing some of the most flamboyant and/or ridiculous clothes. The sexual tension of the catalog came from these very masculine, square-jawed guys wearing fantastically tight, brightly patterned clothes, and some of them have expressions on their faces that say, “How dare you see me as a sex object? !” with implicit in-store retribution for the viewer.

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Matt Bomer’s narration in “All Man” leans heavily on the sexiness of this catalog fantasy world; he can put a lot of heat into words like “undressed”. But there is also great sadness in this story, because so many of the men who worked in the company died during the AIDS crisis. There comes a time when we only see pictures of these men and their names. If this movie has one flaw, it’s only that we can’t hear from these guys about what it was like to work for the catalog.

Amid all the death around him, Burkard decided he no longer valued his work, and he eventually sold the catalog in 1987. There was an attempt in the early 90s to hire heterosexual photographers , to pair the models with women and to tone down the clothes, so much so that in 2000 the owners actually contacted Burkard because they had lost their gay following and wanted his help getting it back. (He rightly declined to participate in this effort.)

The International Male catalog no longer exists, but just take a look at the style of contemporary male stars like Lil Nas X and Timothée Chalamet, and it becomes clear that International Male has done its job of keeping men away from this gray flannel suit and into the tight, outrageous, fantastical and colorful, a process precisely mapped out in this entertaining and thoughtful documentary.

“All Man: The International Male Story” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.