With its latest exhibition Fashioning Masculinities, the Victoria and Albert Museum traces the paths of masculinity through clothes, objects, film, and painting, from the 16th century to the present.
I admit to having been a little sceptical about the enterprise, fearing that it would be too much of a challenge to cover such a broad topic over three rooms of the V and A.
The main streams of thought are summarised in the titles of the themed rooms – Room 1, Undressed, focuses on the male physique and undergarments. Room 2, entitled Overdressed, explores fashion at court and dandies from the 16th century – to the beginning 19th century. Redressed, displays the origins of the suit and then goes on to show its deconstruction by contemporary designers.
In 2020, Alessandro Michele, Creative Director of Gucci, expressed his frustrations over the lack of invention in male fashion and how it was time to think outside the ubiquitous suit. He is quoted at the entrance to the show:“It’s time to celebrate a man, who is free to practise self-determination without social constraints ….without suffocating stereotypes’.
In Room 3 we are shown the link between the wearing of uniform in war at the beginning of the 19th century and the civilian suit. The same tailors, who had worked on soldiers’ uniforms, tailored suits in peace time. The word ‘uniformity’ comes from here, and that uniformity reached its apogee in the Victorian era with the rise of the middle classes and clothes production lines.
The Victorian era has a lot to answer for, suggest the curators of the show. We are shown paintings of Victorian men wearing the ubiquitous black frock coat and top hat. Singer Sargent’s oil portrait of a young artist and writer, illustrates the soberness of the Victorian look, which was tolerated even by young men. Reaching almost down to the man’s ankles, the frock coat looks constrictive on the skinny youth, rather like a insect-like carapace over his thin frame.
It is extraordinary to compare the Victorian man with the courtiers of the 16th, 17th and 18th century, who enjoyed flamboyant colours, lavish silks and velvet. For them, symbolic patterns dazzled and were the symbol of their worth and individuality.
The highlights of the show were without a doubt, the oil portraits of young men at court or dandies. The Tailor painted by Giovanni Battista Moroni in 1565-70, shows a young man in resplendent doublet with small ‘pinking’cuts. Green silk and codpiece protrude through his ballooning red breeches. With his short, cropped hair, beard and moustache, he looks quite contemporary with his wary ‘what are you staring at’ look.
If the young men of this century wore black, they enlivened their outfit with spotless white ruffs. France set the fashion for frippery, ribbons and lace abounded and the lace purchased from Italy or Flanders was valued as highly as jewellery. I was transfixed by an intricately carved cravat made to resemble Venetian lace. A portrait of the Earl of Dudley, 3rdBaron North circa 1615 introduced us to the musician and poet in black quilted doublet and trunk hose. Run your eyes down to his feet and you will see an extraordinary pair of heeled shoes with elaborate rosettes.
The French Revolution brought about a change in men’s fashion, lavish textiles and ornamentation disappeared for men. It was all about body sculpting and a well-cut suit made to mould the body. There was the odd dandy like Beau Brummel and men called Incroyables who in the prints wore jackets and breeches like Beau Brummel and carried elaborate twisted canes and accessories.
Fast forward to the 1960s at the show, you will see colour return with the floral, psychedelic shirts and different coloured suits.
With the changes in sexual mores, we come to the present day and the final room at the exhibition. I had problems seeing some of the contemporary clothes in the low lighting. I understood that the suit was steadily being unpicked by designers of menswear and reconstructed.
In the Harry Styles’s room – it is done away with altogether. His dresses were displayed in a mirrored room. The Gucci frock, a bit frou frou for my liking, was not a million miles away from the flouncy, 18th century linen night shirts/gowns we have seen at the beginning of the show.
This is an appealing show – not ground-breaking, but it reminds us to what extent contemporary men’s designer fashion, far from breaking a new mould, is returning to the ideas of old when the elite male was not afraid to express his individuality and wear bold colours, and when ‘feminine’ flounce did not necessary denote a non-binary or gay sensibility but a wish to dazzle, to display one’s power, economic or sexual.
Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear runs from 19 March-6 November 2022