fter tumultuous centuries of change in men’s style, the message of the V&A’s gigantic new exhibition, Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, seems simple: the future of men’s fashion is genderless.
The exhibition, which ran for four years, saw co-curators Claire Wilcox and Rosalind McKever browse viral moments, contemporary runway collections and the V&A’s collection of 100,000 garments to bring together 100 outfits and 100 works of art. to unpack the history of (Western, mostly) men’s clothing and where we are headed today.
The story, which deconstructs the cyclical history of men’s fashion between the 1500s and today, comes in three parts, mixing clothes with a multimedia range including films from Matthew Bourne’s ballets, male figures action, Rodin sculptures and Chanel perfume ads, and ends with a pedestal finale featuring Harry Styles’ Gucci lace dress worn on the December 2020 cover of American Vogue, the black Christian Siriano Oscar dress of Billy Porter 2019 and Bimini Bon Boulash UK Drag Race final white corset and train by Ella Lynch. It’s busy, sometimes overwhelming, but rich in items worth celebrating.
“Undressed” is the first gallery of a three-part show, seeking to strip the subject down to its undergarments. British designer Craig Green, known for his authoritarian and deconstructed outfits, is a fitting start, before a mix of designs including Jean Paul-Gaultier’s trompe-l’oeil printed suit jackets from 1996 meet suits with similar motifs from the early 20th century Ballets Russes and the muscular proportions of 19th century sculptures.
It also draws the connection between the 18th century Grand Tour, where wealthy and predominantly male Europeans traveled to the continent for educational purposes and returned home after admiring muscular and sculpted gods, and the male body ideal. voluminous that still persists today. You can see it in Calvin Klein posters, Tom of Finland artwork and the six-pack spanking molded into the room, but it’s challenged by sultry new designs, like a sheer organza suit by Ludovic de Saint Sernin, a brand aimed at today’s queer men. .
The heart of the exhibition comes with the “Overdressed” section, delighting in the most flamboyant fashions from the 16th century onwards (omitting the more sober fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries, including later). Here, compelling paintings of beautifully dressed men, including The Tailor by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1565-70), on loan from the National Gallery, and the Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1560) from the National Gallery of Ireland, do well to insist that men’s mundane attire is a modern phenomenon.
Against paintings of flowing capes in fuchsia silk satin worn by the most powerful of the 18th century, stands the work of the emerging design talents of 2022, determined to bring style back. Among them stand out Harris Reed, Grace Wales Bonner, Ahluwalia and Martine Rose.
A huge pool table (indicating typically masculine activities) is filled with brightly colored clothing, including a yellow brocade 1730s waistcoat and Harry Style’s electric blue 2019 Gucci suit, while a crate of items decorated with delicate botanical patterns present the new Fendi couture by Kim Jones. for men alongside a pale blue leopard print frock coat from the late 18th century, worthy of a swoon. You will also find the best treasures of the exhibition here, from the sumptuous snuffboxes hidden in the hands of the models, to the Cecil Beaton coat with applied roses and real eggshells.
Reality crumbles with the final “Redressed” segment, moving closer to the black suits and overcoats of the post-French Revolution and industrial era. The perfectionism embodied by the ultimate man of 19th century fashion, Beau Brummel, is taken up and scrutinized with wardrobes tracing the evolution of frock coats from 1825 to present-day Alexander McQueen.
But the feeling of increasing fluidity of genres, which lines the whole of the exhibition, is again raised to finish. Among the typical male tuxedos are those worn by women, including those of Marlene Dietrich and Stella McCartney, followed by reinterpretations of the suit worn by Timothée Chalamet at the Venice Film Festival 2021, a top and trousers covered in crystals by Haider Ackermann and JW Anderson’s sleeveless top. and ruffled shorts design in 2013.
Next is the sanctuary of dresses from Styles, Porter and Bimini that will undoubtedly cut opinions in half: those who are excited by the prospect that the legacy of the 19th century button-up ideal might finally be loosening up, and those who are more comfortable in the rigid masculinity to which most men, let’s face it, remain accustomed. Given the current monopoly that streetwear and athleisure have on even the most edgy male personalities, perhaps more could have been done with the macho that remains in contemporary menswear.
The V&A’s take seems obvious, though. Guys, put on your best dress or a sparkly cape please. Many have done it before you.
V&A, in partnership with Gucci with the support of American Express, from March 19 to November 6, vam.ac.uk