The first time I watched Friends, there was a clear style hierarchy among the male characters. Gunther, Joey, Chandler, baby Ben, Mr Geller (Ross and Monica’s dad) – and then Ross.
Gunther, with his bleached-blond, close-cropped hair and bold coloured shirts, had a “New York artist in the early 80s” vibe about him. Joey, meanwhile, with his crackpot magnetism, managed to make any outfit from sweats to plaid shirts work, with his heart-shaped face and curtains haircut. He even went accidentally high-fashion with a man-bag and, in the episode where he wore all of Chandler’s clothes, predicted Balenciaga-esque layering. Even Geller Sr had a very specific rumpled, older-gentleman style about him, with his one-size-too-big suits and jumpers.
But Ross … oh, poor Ross! Wasn’t he always boringly attired, with his egghead haircut and his caramel-coloured suits and stripy shirts? For the arc of Friends’ 10 seasons, Ross had some deep personal lows (including, in retrospect, a spot of serious depression). Around season eight, he became the male Phoebe, a comedic foil for the other characters: the sad clown, the Eeyore figure. Later on, some of his most outrageously comic moments would centre on his fashion mishaps.
But, rewatching the show years later and thinking about the character and his interplay with his clothes, something became clear to me. For Ross, fashion wasn’t just functional: it was experimental, allowing him to try on different personas for size. This seems to perfectly mirror the slightly manic view that men took concerning their wardrobe during lockdown.
The flashbacks in Friends were an early indication that Ross was into role-playing this way. There was Bea: the Grey Gardens-ish older female persona, which saw the young Ross dress up in a pirate-fedora hat and a woman’s patchwork blazer. (Altogether now: “I am Bea. I like tea. Won’t you dance around with me.”) There was also Ross giving it his best Lionel Richie, with a perm and a caterpillar moustache, playing his sad keyboard as Rachel went off to prom with Chip, and Miami Vice Ross, with the electric-blue suit and yolk-coloured T-shirt.
Still, the first few seasons of Friends did not give much indication that Ross would be the male lead to push the boat out with fashion. But then the writers and costume designers did something very interesting. As Ross’s life collapsed in on itself, juggling the disappointments of his marriages ending and the pressures of co-parenting, he began experimenting with the boundaries of the persona that everyone knew.
In season four, he found another Ross through his relationship with Emily. He said he was a whole “other guy” when they were together; he even got his ear pierced spontaneously. “Who am I? David Bowie?” he asked Emily. The line was played for laughs (he even did it in a Dick Van Dyke-type Cockney voice), but it was an interesting evocation. Bowie wore single statement earrings at the height of his Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dog eras, when he played with gender as well as personas. And, as the seasons went on, Ross, too, got liminal with fashion.
In season three, he tried on Rachel’s Frankie Say Relax T-shirt (pre-dating that high street perennial, the muscle T). In season 10, he accidentally wore a woman’s top on a date (obviously, it ended up being the same top as his date), which predated unisex, gender-fluid dressing (and, more specifically, shopping in the women’s department long before Young Thug became an advocate for that).
Other moments, such as his ill-fated experiments with bronzer and teeth whitening, predicted a rise in male grooming and self-care. At the time of airing, the seed of the joke was that Ross was getting into traditionally feminised situations that went horribly wrong. Rewatching them, Ross feels like a man of a certain age grappling with how his perceived masculinity intersects with beautification.
Despite the mirth of his friends, in season five, Ross attempted to try something new for a date. His leather trousers became a symbol of a new beginning, an attempt to break out of the funk. They became a sartorial symbol of emancipation from the repeating patterns he couldn’t seem to escape. And when it all went horribly, hilariously wrong (“This year was supposed to be great. Well, it’s only the second day and I’m a loser with stupid leather pants that don’t even fit,” he said when he turned up at his sister’s, trouser-less, legs covered in lotion and talcum powder), Ross summed up why he is a style icon for 2020. He was just trying, like the rest of us – but, unlike most of us, he was brave with fashion, even when it would almost certainly go wrong. As the great man himself would say: “Pivot … PIVOOOOTTT!”