Taking it off

When the mercury climbs, many men want to go shirtless, not all should.


Joseph Perkins' fashion sense stems from a personal philosophy.

"I never wear a shirt," the 25-year-old said. "From about May 23 to, say, Aug. 14, I just take it off." True to form, he was lazing, semi-clad, on his front steps in Hampden yesterday, splitting a 22-ounce Budweiser with his neighbor and watching his pectoral freckles multiply.

Sure, "I've been made fun of," said Perkins, a Camden Yards beer vendor with a generous figure.

But he will not button up, and he applauds the many men of Baltimore who are using this week's 100-degree temperatures as an excuse to strip down. Perkins hopes they realize that more than staying cool is at stake.

"Going shirtless is one of the great things about being a guy," he said. "It's about manhood. It's about freedom. It's about representing for all the men out there who don't care what they look like."

In the age of the male fitness craze, when men count calories and drop thousands of dollars for abdominal implants, it's curious that guys of all shapes and sizes go unabashedly topless, using their shirts as sweat rags when perspiration pools in their belly buttons. The sweltering weather this week is the immediate culprit, but the gut-baring impulse seems to have deep psychological and social origins.

"You've just got to do it," said shirtless Michael Hood of South Baltimore. "The shirt comes off. No one knows why."

Perhaps the average Joe has grown bolder since the rise of less-chiseled leading men like Vince Vaughn and Jack Black, who the tabloids routinely photograph in their swimming trunks, beached alongside the likes of Jennifer Aniston. Or maybe it's just that this is Baltimore, one of the few East Coast cities still straddling the line between white and blue collar, where the working-class hero, with his sweaty, sunburned hide, still gets kudos.

Confronted with acres of belly flesh, fashion experts recoil, and etiquette experts tsk-tsk.

"What if people just decided to start not wearing their bottoms?" asked Stan Williams, fashion and grooming director for Maxim magazine. "Just walking around bottomless?"

"I would never do it," says Ray Mitchener, buyer and manager for Ruth Shaw in Cross Keys. "I would do it in my backyard. I would do it at a pool party. I would do it strolling along the beach, but other than that, I wouldn't think it's appropriate."

But who cares about manners, when it's hotter than the depths of a deep frier?

"I sweat like a horse," said Todd Borgwald, a Johns Hopkins University medical student whose shirt was no where in sight yesterday as he lounged in Patterson Park. On the hottest days, Borgwald explained, he commutes to class half-naked, pausing to don a shirt only if he senses an approaching professor.

There are whole Web sites dedicated to the marvels of the male navel - shirtlessmen world.net includes an actual philosophy of shirtlessness, and lots of pictures.

Those hunks with the tanned trunks are apparently from out of town, though. This heat wave offers unpleasant lessons in the true topography of the male torso: the stretch marks, freckles and misshapen tattoos; the cellulite, sunken breastbones and stomach fur.

"I'm fine with guys not wearing their shirts in public, as long as they are licensed underwear models. All others should avoid this practice," said Carson Kressley, the fashion expert on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. "If I want a roll, I'll go to the bakery."

Dave Cash reached for a different image. "Some of these guys look like they're seven months' pregnant," said Cash, who was supervising several crews of half-naked rehabbers in Upper Fells Point yesterday. Not that he's criticizing: Sometimes Cash is himself sans shirt. "Just as long as nobody's eating," he said.

Many men are shyer - one jogger, whose chest looked like it had recently received a low-budget hair transplant, actually ran away clutching his bosom when approached in Patterson Park.

For others, protocol varies with context. On hot days, plumbing apprentice Mike Branagan cannot bear even the weight of a tank top when he's working with other men on the inside of houses. But as soon as he's ready to take a break, he scurries out to his truck and snatches his shirt.

The reason he does this, he explained sheepishly, is Miss Helen, an 80-something-year-old woman who has lived next door to him in Canton since he was a child. Miss Helen is a great hater of shirtlessness, he said.

"She yells at all us guys," Branagan said. "Miss Helen says it's a matter of respect."

Other men actually think they're giving the ladies a treat.

"I'm not vain or anything, but I get a lot of stares," said Robert Sowell, 40, who was making topless rounds in Druid Hill Park yesterday. "A lot of young girls have never seen a stomach like this up close - a stomach as cut up and tight as mine."

Nathan Beyeridge wasn't sure how he felt slinking down his street in Hampden yesterday, in search of cigarettes. He hadn't been shirtless in as long as he could remember, but he'd lost some weight recently, and suddenly the urge to walk about partially nude had struck him.

He peeked into Hampden Parks Liquors. There was no sign warning of the evils of uncovered chests. He was in and out in a flash, Marlboro Lights in hand.

"It was fine," he said. "Nobody said anything."

But inside, owner Sue Park's bright pink lips retained their expression of puckered disgust.

"All day, they come in my store with no T-shirt!" she raged.

It turns out that the store does have a dress code: "Please take off all hoods, masks before entering," a sign reads. After this heat wave Park may add a line about keeping on all shirts.



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