You Can Thank Robin Williams for the New Golden Age of Hairy Men
Hirsuteness hasn’t always been desirable. In the ‘90s, one man helped change that.
The cruelest joke nature ever pulled on me arrived a month after I ordered a hair-removal solution from Australia called Nad’s. Just as I was conspiring to smite out the little sprouts that had popped up on my shoulders, I noticed the first clump of hair from my head falling out. I was losing it on the top and gaining it on my back, arms and belly in equal measure. Some might say it’s genetics, but I’m certain I brought it upon myself.
I never quite got used to my body hair until around 30, to the extent that I can’t recall going to a beach or public swimming pool in my 20s. It’s not like the hairy dudes are an underrepresented group who have been mistreated by society. Hairy dudes, for the most part, have had it really good. Just look at any photo of James Caan or Burt Reynolds from the 1970s: hairy guys were sex symbols. But then the ‘90s arrived and the trends shifted toward the horribly named “manscaping,” and those of us who could only trim so much felt sort of left out. Mind you, I never had a Shaggy Dog sweater on my torso like some people, but I’ve always felt like the fuzziest person in most groups nonetheless.
Do you know what changed it? Two words: Robin Williams. The late, great actor and comedian is the patron saint of hairy dudes.
I was watching a video of him do standup in the early-1990s, and I remember thinking how he was all hair and sweat and kinetic energy, yet somehow he made it work. I looked through more videos and pictures, watched old movies and episodes of Mork & Mindy to try to figure out what, exactly, he did so right that I could learn from. I finally found it during a rewatch of The Birdcage.
Sartorially speaking, it’s not that he did any one thing right. It’s that he always and invariably did what he wanted. The Birdcage is actually the outlier here: his character, Armand Goldman, is a study in South Beach casual cool, while Williams himself was almost always dressed like he was ready to go trekking through the forest or walk down some street in L.A. to pick up a burger. He toed the line of looking sloppy without ever crossing it, his looks always reflecting the man underneath them: weird, cool, funny and just calculated enough so as to appear that they weren’t calculated at all.
Take this 1999 look from a celebrity tennis match he played in with Billy Crystal, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. It looks like he just got back from Tokyo after hitting up Beams or some other world-class menswear shop:
He also pulled off the Hawaiian shirt and white blazer in a way few could. In theory, this picture from 1979 should only work for someone who looks like Tom Selleck, yet on Williams, it strikes the perfect balance between stylish and “too much” because he decides not one, not two, but four buttons gotta go, revealing a chunky chest carpet with nary an ounce of shame:
I’ve been thinking about Williams as a personal style icon a lot lately. Partially because I recently read David Itzkoff’s brilliant biography on him, but also because right now we’re living in a really great moment for people with unwieldy body hair. Throughout the pandemic, pretty much everyone I know went for it in some way: women let their pit hair flow, the bush is making a comeback, bald guys decided to skip the Bic and embrace the power donut. Knuckle hair, leg hair, arm hair — just let it grow, baby! 2020 was the year of no rules, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.
Designer Kamau Hosten has noticed it as well, and has some thoughts on why this is a good time for bushy bodies: “We’ve seen so many shirtless suit looks through ad campaigns,” he says “There’s a more firm embrace of that sense of sexiness that comes with deeply unbuttoned [looks] or shirtlessness. Guys with hairy chest should embrace it.”
You know who was decades ahead of that trend? That’s right, this guy:
If you’re on the fence, consider all the recent trends that seem to favor guys with some fur to show off. Camp collars, perhaps the ultimate garment in the hairy-man fashion canon, are everywhere. I preached their suitability for bigger guys like myself last year, and at this point, it’s for everybody and every price point. Whether you’re a Todd Snyder guy or wait for the Asos sales, pretty much anywhere you shop these days has a full complement of wonderfully patterned options.
Not a camp collar guy? What about a Western shirt? Get a classic from Levi’s or a fancy one from J. Mueser, then leave it unbuttoned and pair with a chain or two around your neck. Or maybe you’re a Polo guy and you saw people buttoning their polo shirts to the top button in recent years. To hell with that! You don’t need any buttons on a polo. Let the burger meat breathe and pair it with anything you want down below: white jeans, Patagonia baggies, 501s, a pair of boxy chinos, whatever.
This is the summer that you should go ahead and show the world that you are, indeed, descended from apes. You’ve got hair on your body, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s 2021 and anything is possible, for the hirsute and the hairless alike. It’s what Robin Williams always did. And for one summer, at least, it’s what you should do, too.
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