A lot happened in 1976. It was the year of America’s Bicentennial, and also the year Gene Burkard launched mail distribution of the International Male catalog, which offered the latest in fashion to men across the country. In the pre-internet era, that was no small thing—men living anywhere in the United States suddenly had the chance to see and purchase clothing unlikely to be available in any nearby brick-and-mortar store. And in so doing, they could explore identities that might not be safe to express in small-town America, through a clothing catalog distributed by the U.S. Postal Service like any other mail.
That catalog, and the business and the people behind it, are the subject of Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed’s documentary All Man: The International Male Story, a chipper, fast-paced and mostly celebratory film. The story it tells is an intriguing combination of social history, fashion, and good old American capitalism, using the most traditional of documentary techniques, including interviews, archival materials, and voice-of-God narration by Matt Bomer.
International Male founder Gene Burkard grew up in the era of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, when being identified as gay could land you in jail and ruin your life (Burkard recalls hiding under a table to avoid arrest during a raid on a gay bar). After a stint in the Air Force, he took over a friend’s job selling American products like Schlitz beer and Hennessy Cognac to the U.S. Army in Europe. It was the perfect job at the perfect time, allowing Burkard to form his adult identity while exploring cultures and choices far different from what he’d experienced growing up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
One thing Burkard observed in Europe was the much greater range of fashion choices available to men, as compared to the United States, where wearing a blue rather than white shirt with your business suit could mark you out as a dangerous non-conformist. Although lacking any experience or expertise in either fashion or business, Burkard decided to start producing a product he called the “jock sock,” an adaptation of an item known as a “suspensory” that he had spotted in a London medical supply shop window. The jock sock was a huge hit, particularly once Burkard began advertising in Playboy, and he was encouraged to expand to selling outerwear as well.
Like a lot of other clothing catalogues, the International Male catalog was selling fantasies: hunky male models wearing attention-grabbing clothing in layouts suggesting sophistication and cosmopolitanism. It studiously avoided using words like “hot” or “sexy” in the ad copy, letting the art do the talking, and the models were chosen for their rugged and clean-cut masculine look. There were no overt references to sexual identity in the catalog, although, as with Hays Code-era Hollywood movies, one could always read between the lines. This was a smart business move, which had the effect of including straight men in the target market. And women as well—according to one interviewee, 75% of catalog sales were to women.
I don’t know if International Male invented the metrosexual or not, but it’s not far-fetched to say that it played a big role in giving men the freedom to be peacocks in a way that has long been expected of women. Whether that was a good thing or not—such “freedom” can quickly become an expectation or an obligation—is not explored in All Man: The International Male Story. Other topics that could have used more consideration, like the near-universality of white models in the catalog, are mentioned briefly and then dropped, although there’s a bit more consideration of what AIDS meant for the gay male community and for the company.
The most interesting parts of All Man cover the early years of International Male, and the story peters out after 1987, when Burkard sold the company to Hanover Direct. The sale came as a blow to the staff members but was a good business move—Burkard got his payout, the business continued to grow, and needed reforms like the inclusion of more nonwhite models in the catalog finally happened. Maybe the brand was diluted—one commentator notes that in the Hanover years it had to walk a line between “looking good and looking too good” to avoid scaring off straight men—but the visual language and attitude pioneered by International Male have now become mainstream, which may be the greatest compliment one could pay to Burkard and his company.* | Sarah Boslaugh
*It’s a little like the closing of historic gay bookstores—on the one hand, old-timers are sorry to see the end of places that played a key role in their identity formation, but on the other hand it’s a good thing that gay people don’t have to seek out gay-only spaces to be themselves.
All Man: The International Male Story is available for streaming beginning June 6.