top of page

Fashioning Masculinities, (Re)defining Masculinities, and Lawton

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

(Image by the V&A.)

Back in the days when The Suitstainable Man was still in its infancy, I would occasionally cover events and exhibitions which I found thought-provoking. Today's write-up is reminiscent of this article genre, as one recent exhibition arouses my interest before all else — Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear.

For those of you who are unacquainted with the spectacle, Fashioning Masculinities is an ongoing exhibition (running until November 6th, 2022) at The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. What makes the exhibition remarkable is not only its wondrously curated collection of historically-significant garments, paintings, and sculptures; but more importantly its intent to deconstruct norms and forms of masculinity.

The purpose of this article is, therefore, to examine what we could conceivably learn from this exhibition, specifically in relation to the world of classic menswear and 'gentlemen-ly' culture.

Craig Green SS21. (Photography by Amy Gwatkin.)

Let us begin with a visual tour of the tripartite display.

Upon arrival, you are immediately greeted by a foreword from Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci. Michele's message, whilst imaginably unpleasant to the ears for some, is undeniably sobering — that the masculine gender identity is molded over time by the dominant, perhaps even oppressive, and toxic stereotype. Anything which goes against this mainstream macho archetype is firmly opposed if not, in his words, 'aggressively banned.'

Following this narrative, what is required to fully comprehend the evolution of menswear through the centuries, then, is to pinpoint the influences which led to the stereotypes initially. This leads us to the first part of the exhibition, Undressed.

A 1996 Jean-Paul Gaultier trompe l’oeil Greek god torso blazer.

Purposefully featured are two clashing camps of exhibits, with one designated to accentuate, or better yet, glorify the aforementioned archetype, whilst the other being more interested in accommodating the natural person's form.

For the former, there are inevitably (white) marble statues of Apollo, Hermes, and Hercules; representing the 'commonly-desired' well-proportioned, boyish, and bulky male physiques, respectively. All admired and ultimately popularized across Europe by the eighteenth century, through the hands of to-be British aristocrats on the Grand Tour.

Also present are garments (Spanx shapewear) and undergarments (think of Calvin Klein briefs), which call attention to how the physical culture movement of the 1890s — then an opportunity for men of all social classes to attempt manifest as the sculptures they have long adored — has contributed to the eventual normalization of hyper-masculinity and gym culture which endures to this day.

Curiously, a giant plaster fig leaf that was made to cover the Family Jewel of Michaelangelo's David after Queen Victoria's horrific sight at the Renaissance sculpture, at the opening of the V&A back in 1857, was also on display. While undoubtedly serving as an anecdote itself, this also reminds us of how sobriety and (self-)restraint is also a socially-constructed masculine attribute at the core.

This, perhaps, is the reason why the remaining exhibits in the room — those that champion a different interpretation of masculinity — are ever more fascinating. A mannequin in a running motion. A series of portraits featured unclothed men of varying physiques and ages. The fact is masculinity encompasses more personalities than the social constructs our predecessors have imposed on us and insisted on by us.

Hence, through becoming more self-aware of how masculinity and our aesthetics have intrinsically been dictated by a few voices can we start to appreciate what is outside this set boundary and styles which were lost to time.

The Duke of Windor's four-by-one double breasted suit.

If the Undressed section is defined by its monochromatic exhibits, which were, perhaps, deliberately curated to unshroud certain sculptures admirers from the Victorian age on their ignorance over the growing evidence that these statues would have been painted in bright colors after all, then the following section, Overdressed, would be its antithesis.

Granted, flamboyance and wealth are quite plausibly the overarching themes here, with no lack of reminders from both the museum labels and commentators of the exhibition emphasizing how colorful clothing is historically reserved for the wealthy and powerful. That being said, the V&A does not shy away from pointing out that the wealth consideration is only a part of the story; and that our perception of colors — what is masculine or not — is inherently a recent construct.

What follows is a series of garments in various bright colors — pink, red, yellow, and orange — alongside those in earth tones, with the likes of beige, green, and terracotta. You might also be delighted to find out that one of the Duke of Windsor's four-by-one double-breasted suits, with the coat made by none other than F Scholte himself, is on display.

But what is lost to the 'effeminacy' paradigm is more than just colors, it is also patterns and textures. It is, therefore, particularly pleasant to see the inclusion of hibiscus-print blouses and trousers, pastel-colored coats with floral motifs, seersucker ensembles, and many more. A stark reminder of how menswear used to be more expressive and sartorial decorativeness was not an object of scorn.