One of the most famous “Seinfeld” episodes involves Jerry wearing a flamboyant “puffy shirt” — which was pretty much a copy of the “ultimate poet’s shirt” sold by International Male. The piece of apparel might be a pop culture footnote now, but for a while the mail-order catalog that inspired it meant quite a lot, as evidenced by Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed’s documentary.
In the early 1970s, Gene Burkard, a gay former airman turned entrepreneur, slightly retooled a medical garment called a suspensory into a “jock sock.” Its mail-order success eventually led to Burkard’s launching International Male, whose catalog peddled unabashedly outlandish men’s clothing modeled by unabashedly sexy hunks.
Narrated by Matt Bomer, the doc breezily chronicles International Male’s rise and fall from the 1970s to the mid-00s. As the fashion commentator Simon Doonan argues in the film, International Male documented — and reinvented — gay and straight men’s shared fetishization of masculinity. Casting aside the cloaking devices known as dark suits and white shirts, the catalog displayed butch specimens lounging in hot pants, crop tops and thongs, with color schemes running a retina-searing gamut from coral and lime to prints like purple zebra stripes. Anticipating Instagram, the company turned clothing into lifestyle, while also providing a coded fantasy outlet for gay men around the country.
Admittedly, the film is more dutiful than artful, ticking one box after another, a tendency that is especially obvious when it ventures to the dark side of paradise (the ravages of AIDS on employees and customers, the lack of diversity among the catalog models). Then it’s right back to knights in white satin and the realization that men’s gauze harem pants were once an instrument of liberation.
All Man: The International Male Story
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. Available to rent or buy on most major platforms.