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.
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.
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.
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.
Which makes the last segment of the exhibition, Redressed, ever more depressing. Black is the only language that remains in the realm of menswear, despite the societal advances of the nineteenth century. As the curators rightfully pointed out,
'In the 1850s, synthetic dyes made a variety of brilliant hues available to all, yet menswear became relatively restrained.'
We have, of course, a household name to thank for — Beau Brummell, who despite being commonly referred to as the father of dandyism, was in fact the one who started the understated elegance (and disdained everyone else) culture.
Granted, one could also view his rule-based approach to menswear and the careful exercise of personal choice as revolutionary at the time. After all, it created the possibility that what is to be considered tasteful and what not can be determined by those outside the leading social class. Yet, one would still need to lose his 'excess' individuality and play ball, to begin with.
Menswear has nevertheless evolved since the regency period, but it has mostly been confined to the lens of silhouettes. Tommy Nutter and Alexander McQueen are celebrated figures, for they know the rules and know how to break them.
A more interesting turn is perhaps the rise of the masculine lady, which the notion was really brought to light when Marlene Dietrich first donned a white tie, top hat, and tails in Morrocco. She would continue to pursue masculine tailoring throughout her life, and ultimately served as the central figure in popularizing trousers for women in the United States.
But what is often less discussed, plausibly due to its controversial nature, is how this also unintentionally cemented the macho masculinity of the contemporary suit. That in order to be taken seriously you would need to act masculine, speak masculine, and wear masculine. Thatcher was no doubt the prime example of this.
Fast forward to this day, wearing a suit can only give off an impression of strength and wealth, regardless of the individual's intrinsic personality or attempt in incorporating any nuances in his/ her outfit.
The exhibition ends with fanciful ballgowns on display, in a good-old V&A fashion. A black velvet dinner jacket-looking gown worn by actor Billy Porter, musician Harry Styles' blue lace confection donned for the cover of US Vogue, alongside a white wedding dress made for drag queen Bimini Bon-Boulash.
Almost a century afterward, are we finally witnessing (and beginning to accept) the rise of the feminine men? Or does this terminology even mean anything?
So what do we make out of this exhibition?
Surely, we could always retreat to a revivalist argument, contending men should once again wear more colors, patterns, and textures, and that's about it. Notwithstanding, this argument does not offer any solution for reconciling the differences between yesterday's and today's understanding of style and gender roles, let alone an opportunity for 'menswear' to evolve.
The answer, perhaps, lies in disassociation. This can be interpreted in two ways.
For the first half of this write-up, we examined how historical influences have over time narrowed what is permitted and what is not under the masculinity framework. There are certain attributes men should aspire to have — we are no different than the aristocratic youth who set sail for their Grand Tour back in the seventeenth century, in this regard. What distinguishes us from them, however, are our advantages in self-determination and self-expression, that we can be more than a Greek godly figure. In other words, a disassociation of masculinity with its historical connotations.
That being said, this solution would not be sufficient on its own. Tailored garments are meant to convey a sign of strength, status, and wealth because of those who wore them historically. Neapolitan tailoring attempts to disassociate the former by stripping away any shoulder pads in the coat, though that still leaves the latter characteristics prevalent. (No hard feelings towards you, soft tailoring.) Hence, what is required is the degendering of tailoring — a dissociation that tailoring, or any form of clothing frankly, needs to be gendered.
But what of the gentlemen-ly culture? In my previous piece on the cultural sustainability of menswear rules, I raised the issue that insisting on the obsolete menswear rules and not evolving with time would only further erode tailoring's relevance in today's world. Perhaps, and just perhaps, gentlemen-ly culture could be added to this list as well. Tailoring overlaps with this subculture though not fall under it.
Finally, this leaves us with three questions. Firstly, by using the terminology, 'peacock', are we already restricting ourselves from other interpretations of masculinity? Secondly, if we were to move beyond Brummel's ruled-based, self-conscious, and subjective aesthetic framework, how is beauty then defined? Lastly, the fact that these garments, say, the four-by-one double-breasted suit, for instance, are displayed in a museum, does that already imply they are dated and have lost their relevance in today's world?
One final PSA. As a part of the exhibition, the V&A will be hosting a series of events of workshops. One of which would be a demonstration of the bespoke tailoring journey, done by none other than Kimberley Megan Lawton.
Some readers may remember Kimberley from our previous write-up on Dobrik & Lawton opening up on Savile Row. Since then, she has launched her own venture, LAWTON, which shares a similar art-deco-inspired house style as its predecessor; though it also takes inspiration from alternative music, such as Rock & Roll.
Opening bespoke commissions now include a double-breasted chalk stripe suit, a single-breasted grey fresco suit, as well as a pink zoot suit. An MTO line will also be launched imminently.
-McKever, Wilcox, and Franceschini, 2022. 'Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear'.
-Rowland, 2019. 'Beau Brummell Wasn’t a Hero of Modern Men’s Fashion. He Was a Villain. A Boring, Uptight Villain.'
Photography: as stated, otherwise own