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The unstoppable rise of dad style

What does the popularity of ‘dad merch’ mean for what it is to be a father today?

Recently I went out for pale ales and pizzas with ‘the lads’ (read: middle-aged men) at the Pembury Tavern in Hackney while wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Rad Dad’ on the front. This prompted some mild banter from my mates, even though one has a child and the other a particularly demanding Akita. But as the barmaid was clearing our empties, she asked me where my T-shirt was from (a little ethical label called Black & Beech, in case you’re wondering). She wanted to buy one as a present for a colleague who was expecting.

As radical as the idea may have seemed a few years ago, ‘dad style’ has gone from oxymoron to the height of fashion. Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2018 catwalk show (held in 2017, because it’s fashion) in Paris not only took inspiration from ‘young dads in the park with their kids’ for the oversized blazers, wrinkled shirts and straight-leg jeans, but was modelled by actual dads and accessorised with their actual children.

Indeed, dad caps, dad jeans and dad trainers no longer indicate that the wearer has given up on any semblance of fashionability, but that he’s down with the kids, if not that he is a kid himself. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to a couple of east London twentysomethings, though. The global fashion search platform Lyst, used by 80m shoppers in 120 countries last year, named ‘dad fashion’ one of 2018’s most influential trends.

‘Dadcore’, as it’s been christened, is a maturation of ‘normcore’, the anti-trend for dressing as basically as possible. It’s theorised that dadcore reflects a subconscious craving for the stability of the property-owning, retirement-saving suburban fathers that millennials grew up with. More practically, fashion’s 20-year cycle dictates that what said dads wore in the Nineties is due a comeback. And dad-approved outdoors brands such as Patagonia, currently suing the Trump administration for shrinking American national parks, have acquired added resonance in the current climate.

‘Dads are now at the centre of the style universe’, according to the New York Times, which cited the influence of Kanye West on the phenomenon. By getting married, having kids and moving to the suburbs, the father-of-four set a trend – literally – through his deliberately schlubby Yeezy fashion label. After turning up to his February 2016 fashion-slash-album show at Madison Square Garden in a cap and long-sleeve Life of Pablo T-shirt like it was the nursery run, he was dubbed an ‘art dad’: someone who doesn’t let dependants cramp their style or creativity, but pivots to accommodate. The original art dad, according to the term’s originators, is John Lennon, who quit the Beatles then combined the roles of father, solo artist and peace activist.

Still, the elevated dad style purveyed by the likes of Balenciaga or Yeezy, with its elevated price tag, has probably not been adopted by that many actual dads. ‘Genuine dad style is all about wearing clothes with ease that are comfortable and accessible, which fringes the anti-trend,’ says Olie Arnold, style director at e-tailer Mr Porter, and himself an improbably fashionable father. ‘Running shoes, classic jeans and functional outerwear are all examples.’ But the repositioning of clunky footwear, frumpy denim and geeky anoraks has now made them widely appealing to everyone from millennial fashion followers to older men who want both practicality and cool points.

There’s dressing like a dad, even when you’re not, and there’s broadcasting that you have an Acne Studios ‘dad’ sweatshirt. One of the first fashion brands that I noticed entering the arena of ‘dad style’ was Ron Dorff, which emblazoned ‘DAD’ on sweatshirts, jumpers and caps. Given the label’s athletic inflection, I always assumed it was a nod to dad bod, yet another case where the modifier is negative. That, or a gay thing that I didn’t get. In fact, founder and CEO Claus Lindorff tells me, it was conceived as part of a collection based around palindromes – words that go both ways, so to speak.

‘We always try to come up with prints that have a double meaning,’ he says. ‘I stumbled on DAD and first found it bland, but then thought that there are so many meanings to dad, and so many different dads out there, that made it really interesting as a word. We’re all dads, one way or another.’ The print was launched with the tagline: ‘Super DAD, Soccer DAD, Sugar DAD – what kind of DAD are you?’ It quickly became a bestseller, and is now enshrined as a permanent part of the collection. ‘And it turns out that all kinds of people buy this print, whether they are a father or not,’ says Lindorff. ‘This is what’s so cool about the notion of being a dad these days. It’s very much up to each individual what that stands for.’

Cap, £40, uk.rondorff.com

The stereotypical three Ps of masculinity – Protect, Provide and Procreate – no longer all apply, or apply at all. Today, you don’t have to be a dad to be a dad. The youthz write ‘dad’ on social media posts of their favourite celebs, as art pop star Lorde explained after commenting ‘mom’ on a pic of Kim Kardashian West: ‘It basically jokingly means “adopt me/be my second mom/I think of you as a mother figure you are so epic”.’

Spanish-speaking cultures employ ‘papi’ indiscriminately as a term of endearment for everyone from children to romantic partners. Drake’s ‘Champagne Papi’ moniker, meanwhile, has at least partially reclaimed ‘sugar daddy’, to say nothing of Ty Dolla $ign’s track Zaddy (a younger, swaggier version, Zayn Malik, is frequently called a zaddy online), which lays bare the nakedly transactional nature of his many relationships. And even without the saccharine prefix – or, er, ‘leather’ – ‘daddy’ can have sexual connotations, perhaps the most vanilla being ‘attractive older man’.

It’s surprising when responsible men are also ‘hip, or let’s not walk around it, sexy’, writes the US website Fatherly, which last year published its first annual rundown of The 100 Coolest Dads in America. That inadvertent ‘dad style’ icon Barack Obama only just squeaked in at No 99 indicates the quantity and intensity of the competition. No 1 was basketballer LeBron James, followed by surfer Kelly Slater, National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, Renaissance man Donald Glover, and Queer Eye Culture Guy Karamo Brown (who in 2007 found out he had a 10-year-old son by a high-school girlfriend).

‘If I’ve ever commented “dad”, it’s because I’ve been inspired by that male figure,’ says Jack Norman, co-founder of Milk for Tea, a social enterprise that serves men’s wellbeing and personal development. ‘A lot of men are struggling to find good male role models. People use “dad” as a free-flowing term, and I think that’s really positive.’ Well, mostly. ‘A gay guy that I managed in my old workplace used to call me daddy all the time,’ he laughs. ‘I had to ask him to stop.’

Joking aside, is there an issue, HR or otherwise? Some gay men call other men ‘daddy’ – as some women do – during sex. Whether they’re younger in age or just want to fantasise that they are, it’s a term that implies submission and dominance. Aside from ‘father’, the dictionary (Oxford, not Urban) defines ‘daddy’ as ‘the oldest, best or biggest example of something’, or ‘the best or most successful person’. Even the more SFW ‘dad’ could be reinforcing ideal qualities: authority, money, strength, hirsuteness. Is that problematic? Anti-feminist? Toxic?

‘Any guy can be a father, but it takes a hot, middle-aged guy with a big job to be a daddy,’ chorus Matt Damon and Kate McKinnon as co-hosts of the Crufts-style Westminster Daddy Show in a Saturday Night Live skit last year. ‘Think George Clooney, but achievable,’ continues McKinnon, who stresses that all the competitors ‘could get it’. Characteristics of a champion daddy include ‘a little salt and pepper at the temples, some play money to throw around and a smug, knowing smile that says, “I do sex good”,’ adds Damon, who in the punchline wins Best in Show.

Calling someone daddy in the bedroom isn’t a cue to page Dr Freud, although women are statistically more likely to marry men with the same eye and hair colour as their fathers. (Research also shows that women tend to prefer slightly older men and vice versa, which makes sense evolutionarily in terms of reproduction and resources.) As we’ve established, daddy doesn’t always mean dad (neither does dad, for that matter) although the hint of unspeakable taboos doubtless lends it frisson. Sexual preferences don’t necessarily correlate with political views and, of course, context is key.

But what does wearing a ‘Rad Dad’ T-shirt say about me? (I also own a ‘Papa’ sweatshirt, but that’s another feature). Am I trying to project certain qualities to others, or to myself? To advertise my virility, or cover up my parental imposter syndrome, that I don’t really feel like a responsible adult underneath? Is ‘dad style’ a less rugged addition to the masculine archetypes that dominate menswear: the soldier, the sailor, the biker, the workman, the cowboy (basically the line-up of the Village People)? In the same neck of the real-man-fancy-dress woods as the ‘lumbersexual’ trend of a few years back?

‘What you wear is an extension of you and a way to express yourself,’ says Milk for Tea’s Norman, who is creating a series of workshops on sartorial identity. ‘It reflects where you are in your life. Some people may be longing for something else, so they want to be perceived as a certain person. But I suppose you could say that about anything in fashion.’

Superficial as it may sound, that being a dad is increasingly perceived as ‘cool’ is, well, rad, and marks a profound shift from portraying fathers as weary unfortunates, hapless incompetents or (often willingly) absent breadwinners. And as the latter demonstrates, being a dad in the narrowest sense of procreating doesn’t automatically make you rad.

‘We’re still living in a society that tells us, “You need to get married by this age, you need to have kids by this age,”’ says Norman. ‘If I was to become a father anytime soon, that would be because I wanted to be connected with someone and be a kind of teacher to that person, to guide them through difficult times and be a shoulder to lean on. Not because I wanted people to say, “He’s got a kid so he’s smashed life.”’

Jamie Millar is our regular fatherhood writer (see page 15) and isn’t a regular dad. He’s a cool dad

Title credits: ‘Dad’ sweatshirts, all £120, uk.rondorff.com