ON JULY 18, 2018, Chadwick Boseman wore a white, chest-spanning leather harness over his cream-colored tuxedo to the ESPY Awards. Months later, Timothée Chalamet showed up at the Golden Globes in a glittery gothic version of the harness and Michael B. Jordan, not to be outdone, strapped on a floral embroidered one for the Screen Actors Guild Awards. This trio of body-crossing contraptions, all from Virgil Abloh’s first collection as Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer, have confounded awards-show followers. Are the harnesses bedazzled gun holsters? Sparkly black lederhosen? Toddler reins for adults? For my money, they most resemble lopsided seatbelts.
Even Louis Vuitton seemed unsure how to classify the devices: In an email to me last month, the French label described Mr. Chalamet’s as an “embroidered bib” then, weeks later, termed Mr. Jordan’s an “embroidered mid-layer”. On Louis Vuitton’s website, where the harness is listed for $2,530, it is described as a “cut away vest”. Stylists for Mr. Jordan and Mr. Boseman (Mr. Chalamet does not employ a stylist) declined interviews for this story, as did Mr. Abloh.
Whatever you call it, the harness-holster-bib doohickey has emerged as this awards season’s most head-scratching phenomenon. Reporters from media outlets as varied as Elle and “The Today Show” have all snidely dissected it. I’ve found it surprising that any one item should provoke so much kerfuffle, especially in menswear’s current “look at me” moment, defined by maximalist style. See Gucci’s garish floral suiting, Balenciaga’s Wonder Bread-sized shoes or the big-graphic, big-ticket hoodies from Off-White, also designed by Mr. Abloh. Celebs and athletes alike have been wearing such extreme statements to award shows or NBA games, pushing loud men’s fashion into the mainstream. Even the political world has not shied away from attention-grabbing style: the derangedly dandified outfits of Roger Stone, the recently indicted, onetime Trump campaign adviser, have preoccupied late-night hosts like Seth Meyers and political commentators.
Rhonda Garelick, a professor of fashion studies at New York’s Parsons School of Design, noted that as far back as the 1970s, British designer Vivienne Westwood was selling harnesses to male customers, while in 1981’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” Mel Gibson’s macho action-hero wore a strappy holster-like garment. The professor also saw an ancestor of today’s male harnesses in the BDSM-inspired Jean-Paul Gaultier corsets that Madonna wore in her envelope-pushing ’80s days. Ms. Garelick attributed the resurgence to a “mainstreaming of queer culture” and “another form of gender fluidity.” It’s worth noting that figure skater Adam Rippon, the first openly gay man to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympics team, wore a more explicitly S&M-inspired harness-suit by Moschino to the Oscars last year. Mr. Chalamet, the only actor to acknowledge the fetish connection, made light of it on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” days after wearing the bib: “I had a friend send me a thing that, like, sex-dungeon culture is a thing where you wear harnesses. I didn’t do it for that reason.”
For many, these harnesses are an eyesore. “Generally, they’re kind of ugly,” said Hunter Harris, 24, an associate editor at Vulture, a website run by New York magazine. She took particular issue with Mr. Jordan’s efforts, arguing that, on the brawny actor. “The outfit would’ve looked so much better without it,” she said, speculating that these celebrities may have worn the harnesses simply to show that they were chummy with Mr. Abloh, or at least aware of his work.
Mr. Abloh, with 3.6 million Instagram followers and a side-gig as a DJ (he’s set to appear at Coachella later this year), is the rare fashion designer whose fanbase rivals those of the celebs he dresses. His personal popularity somewhat upends the usual red-carpet dynamic, whereby attention-seeking brands dress celebrities to align themselves with a marquee name. Alexander McQueen, for instance, garners valuable press when Emily Blunt repeatedly namedrops the label when pestered to confess “who she’s wearing” on her way into the Golden Globes. In the case of Mr. Chalamet and his harness-wearing brethren, perhaps, the celebrities are leaning on Mr. Abloh’s profile to appear cooler. It may not matter if the harness looks like a piece of mangled rock-climbing gear—since Mr. Abloh designed it, it’s well worth being photographed in it for millions to see.
That’s not to say that the harness has been universally disliked. “I thought, ‘What a nice little touch,’ said Shaun Proulx, 50, who hosts a weekly talk show on Sirius Radio from Toronto. In his view, the backlash was a “typical, lazy, knee-jerk reaction” to men taking a style risk. “I have felt for a long time that men get shut down and repressed with fashion,” said Mr. Proulx of Mr. Chalamet and crew. He’s no stranger to style risks himself, confessing to having hazarded capes, ponchos, tunics and other eccentric garments in public. “I’m a confident enough guy to always express myself,” he said, adding that he applauds Hollywood’s harness trio. “Individuality is needed more than ever right now.”
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com