Men In Pearls – Why The Trend Is Here To Stay
Mr Pharrell Williams walking in the Chanel Metiers d’Art 2016/2017: Paris Cosmopolite show, Paris, 7 December 2016. Photograph by Vantage News
In Ms Deborah Levy’s Booker-longlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything (2019), her blue-eyed protagonist Saul Adler always wears a string of pearls. The necklace belonged to his mother. It nestles well alongside his other clothes: a white Navy surplus suit, Levi’s jeans, an orange silk tie and green faux-snakeskin hat. “I had never given much thought to a pearl belonging to a gender,” he observes at one point. “If I had to fight in a war I’d have to take off my pearls, so obviously I was for world peace all round.”
Set across multiple timelines that converge around London and East Berlin in the late 1980s, Ms Levy’s novel shimmers with beauty, paranoia and uncertainty. It’s also very deliberately stylish, particularly when it comes to Adler’s androgynous outfitting – his attire providing not only armour and attention, but an occasionally troublesome level of distinctiveness.
Aptly, for a book concerned with the bend and stretch of time, that stylishness speaks surprisingly well to our present moment – especially when it comes to Saul Adler’s string of pearls. A nacreous necklace might stand out on him, but these days it’s a commonplace sight on a certain kind of style-conscious man.
Left: Portrait of Charles I, c.1637 by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Photograph by Sotheby’s/AKG Images. Right: Sir Elton John at the 60th Grammy Awards, New York, 28 January 2018. Photograph by Mr Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
The rise of the pearls as a bona fide male accessory over the past year and a half has been both remarkable and rather buoying. Remarkable insofar as it seems to be a trend with real sticking power, having first been noted as something substantial in 2019 when it was worn by a number of celebrities including A$AP Rocky and Mr Harry Styles – the latter following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Raleigh, King Charles I and Sir Elton John by plumping for a single pearl earring at the Met Gala – and turned up in the shows of Ryan Roche, Dior and Gucci. Buoying, too, because their ongoing popularity seems to reflect the sea change (aha) afoot in mainstream menswear, emblematic of the shifting tides of what it means to dress “like a man”.
Pearls were spotted on men on the catwalk as far back as 2016 when Mr Pharrell Williams modelled several strings at Chanel, but it was in the last year that they really took off. While a wide range of actors, rappers and musicians were being pictured in pearls – not just Mr Styles and A$AP Rocky now, but also Messrs Shawn Mendes, Billy Porter, Jaden Smith and Jordan Firstman, as well as Mx Ezra Miller, Young Paris, Machine Gun Kelly, the Jonas Brothers and many more – designers were also reaching for oceanic spoils.
At Dior, Mr Kim Jones’ soft opulence came accessorised with pearl-trimmed gloves and gleaming brooches on lapels. Comme des Garçons’ collaboration with Japanese jeweller Mikimoto yielded a campaign featuring a clean-cut young man in suit, tie, and string of pearls. Gucci continued with the jewellery-heavy eclecticism, while AMIRI dressed its models in rollnecks and pearls in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll 1970s jetsetters. Brands such as Casablanca, specialising in a lightly camp vision of playboy glamour, have also loaded on the pearls alongside jaunty scarves and big sunglasses.
From left: Ryan Roche SS20. Photograph by Mr Salvatore Dragone/Imaxtree.com. AMIRI AW20. Photograph by Mr Armando Grillo/Imaxtree.com. Dior AW20. Photograph by Mr Armando Grillo/Imaxtree.com
As with all trends, though, a new bout of interest requires the coalescence of various ingredients: in this case a number of catwalk shows, celebrity moment and singularly stylish individuals, combined with a growing cultural mood. The pearl’s ample presence in costume dramas hasn’t gone unnoticed, whether prim and proper in The Crown or fantastically baroque in The Favourite. More recently, The Great has seen Mr Nicholas Hoult as ill-tempered Emperor Peter III don great big strings of them alongside his satin dressing gowns and leopard-print coats. The history of men wearing pearls is, of course, centuries old, incorporating 16th-century English Kings, 18th-century Indian Maharajas and 1920s bright young things such as writer, socialite, and costume-party aficionado Mr Stephen Tennant.
Like many other more traditionally feminine modes of dress, pearls can register as an expression of androgyny or queer identity – or at the very least push gently at the increasingly porous boundaries of gender. But by now, their widespread appeal means they’re no longer automatically subversive. Instead, they also speak more generally to menswear’s embrace of all things soft and extravagant: think 1017 ALYX 9SM’s crystal-encrusted coats and SAINT LAURENT’s satins and pendants, as well as the number of brands erring towards co-ed shows or experimentations with less rigidly gendered design.
Mr Harry Styles attending a listening party for his album, Los Angeles, 19 December 2019. Photograph by Mr Rich Fury/Getty Images for Spotify
Pearls are surprisingly versatile as men’s jewellery goes. Depending on their styling, they can be luxuriant, minimalist or statement-making; the effect of a single, smoky Tahitian pearl hung on a leather strap is distinct to that of a Vermeer-style single earring or a discrete cufflink, while a small string of seed pearls sits differently on the skin to several heavy strands.
There’s also something else pearls offer: character. They give an automatic sense of occasion, no matter how understated, to the wearer – whether adorning necks, wrists, ears or clothing. Much like Ms Deborah Levy’s novel, they ask interesting questions about male beauty, and as the taste for sartorial drama seems set to continue, they’re likely to endure.