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February 12, 2015

Beards, woodsmen, and lumbersexuals—oh my!

February 10 was National Flannel Day. I know this because I was recently invited to attend an event commemorating the holiday at a big box store in the North Side. There, a popular men’s deodorant company was launching a new collection of fragrances “inspired by ingredients found in nature,” complete with a number of “lumberjacks”—large, bearded men in plaid and overalls—busy handing out free samples to interested patrons. The press release billed the event as Lumbersexual.

Have you heard this term before? Prior to Flannel Day, I had not. But, according to the Internet, lumbersexuality is all the rage among today’s youth. According to Tom Puzak of GearJunkie, who broke the news on this latest “trend,” young men are adopting the lumberjack look in droves. Beards, flannel, axes—these are the accouterment of the modern man about Brooklyn. As Puzak says, “He looks like a man of the woods, but works at The Nerdery, programming for a healthy salary and benefits. His backpack carries a MacBook Air, but looks like it should carry a lumberjack’s axe.” Sound familiar?

That’s right: As it turns out, this newest incarnation of the hipster looks a whole lot like the old incarnation of the hipster. Large beards, plaid, and leather work boots have been staples of the Blue Line since at least the late 2000s. Almost everyone who goes to the University of Chicago owns one or more expensive cloth backpacks. Bon Iver—arguably the elder statesman of the soulful woodsman aesthetic—has been popular for nearly a decade. All of which leads me to conclude that the idea of “lumbersexual” as a trend in male fashion was almost definitely coined as a joke.

Nevertheless, the blogosphere has decided to run with it. Since coming to the consciousness of the literate public in late October, lumbersexuality has been dissected, intellectualized, and problematized ad nausaeum. Some commentators, such as Willa Brown of The Atlantic, have adopted the now-familiar stance that any new trend in male fashion must obviously be a compensatory stress-reaction to the increasingly tenuous position of male masculinity in the modern world. Men are no longer the primary breadwinners in their families, so they’re forced to wear flannel. Or something.

Meanwhile, Aleksander Chan (of Gawker fame) puts the lumbersexual as “a foil to the metrosexual”—bearded instead of clean cut, baggy jeans instead of fitted slacks. “The metrosexual is clean and pretty and well-groomed; the lumbersexual spends the same amount of money, but looks filthy”—but, again, hipsters have been paying exorbitant funds for beat-up bomber jackets since 2001, and not because they felt that their masculinity was in question.

Finally, Jezebel—ever the giant of feminist theory—concludes that, although the trend is “somewhat misleading” (these guys don’t actually chop down trees or skin small animals), “the lumberjack look is still pretty hot.” Cutting-edge criticism, as always.

Hot or not, it’s undeniable that lumbersexuality, both as a concept and as a term, is somewhat disagreeable. As a friend recently pointed out to me, the practice of cosplaying as members of the working class—especially when those cosplayers are comparatively wealthy and listen to Father John Misty—is kinda weird. And who’s to say that actual lumberjacks aren’t being harmed by this kind of cultural appropriation? At some point, somewhere, it’s possible that a sawmill lineman might’ve been briefly confused for a hipster. And that’s a traumatic experience.

Fortunately for real jacks, and unfortunately for real lumbersexuals, the trend seems to be on the way out. I don’t know that it can survive being used in an ad campaign for a line of men’s deodorant, and the absolute commercialization of the lumberjack ideal—from fresh mountain air to Fresh Mountain Air™ Scent—left me feeling a little nauseous at Monday’s Flannel Day celebration.

And so, after quietly vomiting into the dumpster behind the Toys “R” Us, I made the trip to Wicker Park, hoping to observe the lumbersexual in his natural environment before he went totally extinct. There—in a crowded bar room on North Milwaukee—I met a man named Jake. Bearded, with exaggerated sideburns and long hair, he looked like he could’ve been the Brawny Man’s cousin; the one who did porn in the ’80s when he needed to make rent. I asked Jake if he identifies as “lumbersexual.”

“I think I’m more lumberfluid,” he told me. He doesn’t own an axe, or even whittle. It seems likely that he’d die after only a few days stranded in the Rockies. But he does like the look, and identifies with the culture. “I don’t wear flannel every day. But I’m a woodsman at heart.”

And isn’t that what really matters?

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