In the days before Amazon, long before online shopping became the norm, there were mail-order catalogs.
Millions upon millions were sent, often without solicitation, to households across the nation. There was the Sears Catalog, Spiegel, Victoria’s Secret. A few still exist today, though the boom arguably ended back in the mid-2000s.
There was one particular catalog of note that sent gay men into a fashion (and masturbatory) frenzy whenever it arrived. Beginning in the mid-seventies, and published for just over three decades, International Male, with its flawless, breathtaking, chiseled models and fantastical photographic spreads, dominated the male fashion landscape, offering lavish, sometimes absurd clothing, and underwear that was sometimes little more than a waist-banded thread.
The catalog was beloved by gay men and straight men alike — for very different reasons.
“Straight men would aspire to be that guy [in the catalog], and gay guys could look at it and go, ‘Oh, I want to do that guy really badly,’” says comic Frank DeCaro in the slick, engaging documentary, All Man: The International Male Story (★★★★☆, Critic’s Pick).
Written by Peter Jones and co-directed by Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed, the documentary traces International Male’s inception at the hands of Gene Burkard, a gay entrepreneur whose inspiration for diving into the mail order business was a jock-like medical device called the “Suspensory.” He rechristened it “The Jock Sock,” and it soared, the erotic launching pad for a ridiculous over-abundance of menswear products.
The tale is told in a more or less linear fashion, with a few character-driven detours, utilizing potent archival footage, clever recreations, flashy animations, and a legion of talking heads, including Carson Kressley, Drew Droege, Jake Shears (who, yes, uses the word “splooge”), and the surviving staff of IM’s early days, including a few of its most famous models.
The movie strives to make a deeper point about masculinity, virility, and the emergence of fashion as a freeing, gender-bending device. “Straight guys were seeing outlandish clothes that didn’t really have a purpose other than being fun and exciting,” says Kressley.
Adds Droege, “There was something so beautifully ridiculous about the clothes.” But the film remains on the surface of the discussion, high-gloss entertainment without taxing the mind. The topic is so interesting that it leaves you wanting something with a bit more richness and depth.
Then again, who cares when something is this much fun? Featuring sturdy narration by Matt Bomer and a dazzling electronic score by Bright Light Bright Light, All Man is a refreshing breeze of nostalgia for gay men of a certain age and a zippy education of life before internet porn for the new kids on the LGBTQ block. The filmmakers were lucky to get Burkard on camera before his passing in 2020. He’s a lively guide, with a mischievous grin and old-school gay charm.
All Man is at its most potent when focusing on the models — most of whom were straight, it turns out — as well as when it dips, briefly but poignantly, into somber territory, manifesting an “In Memoriam” section for International Male employees who passed away in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“International Male was the antidote to what you had to deal with every day [in the ’80s],” says DeCaro. To that end, All Male urges you to put aside today’s turmoil for 83 captivating minutes and savor the looks, the men, and the memories.
All Man is available in the virtual festival through Sunday, Oct. 23, at 11:59 p.m. in D.C., Maryland and Virginia only. For details on festival passes and pricing, click here.
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