The V&A’s thrilling new exhibition, Fashion Masculinities – The Art of Menswear, sets out to unpick the history of men’s fashion from 1500 to the present day. In so doing, the exhibition demonstrates the incredible diversity of men’s fashion during the period as well as the seismic changes which impacted the way designers adorned their subjects.
“At a moment of unprecedented creativity in men’s fashion and reflection on gender, ‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ explores how designers, tailors and artists have constructed and performed masculinity, and unpicked it at the seams” says a press release from the V&A about the exhibition.
In total, one hundred garments will be on display in the exhibition, with exhibits ranging from the court clothes of the European nobility to outfits worn by such iconic pop stars as Harry Styles and Lady Gaga.
The V&A’s new show is broken up into three sections: Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed.
Undressed gets straight down to the nitty gritty. The first section of the exhibition focuses on undergarments, linking the rise of the modern sculpted aesthetic to the artistic examples of masculinity found in ancient Roman and Greece.
The exhibition shows how wealthy young Britons brought these ideas back to these shores, courtesy of the Grand Tour – that rite of passage that all young men of breeding undertook in the 17th & 18th centuries. The tour’s took the English nobility to the great centres of antiquity: Rome, Florence and Venice.
Underdressed mixes references to the art of antiquity with modern day clothes inspired by these forms. Hence we get work by British designer Craig Green, French fashion king Jean Paul-Gaultier and American icon Calvin Klein which show how these classical ideas still predominate in modern forms of dress.
The idea behind the exhibition is expressed in a quote attributed to Gucci designer Alessandro Michele at the door to the show.
“In a patriarchal society, masculine gender-identity is often molded by violently toxic stereotypes…It’s time to celebrate a man who is free to practice self-determination, without social constraints, without authoritarian sanctions, without suffocating stereotypes.” The designer says.
The thrust of it is that masculinity has been a construct of societies that are themselves in thrall to older and more morally challenging views of masculinity. Fashion Masculinities wonders what the world would look like in a world where men were individually free to make choices about their own gender identity and dress.
If Underdressed strips male fashion down to basics, the exhibition’s second section, Overdressed, takes an opposite approach, by showing how male fashion has continually embraced indulgence and flamboyance.
Here we meet royalty, aristocrats, and the nobility in all their sumptuous finery, in a period long before the term ‘bling’ was invented.
We are introduced to a series of portraits of the most fashionable men in renaissance society with Giovanni Battista Moroni’s The Tailor (1565-70) and Sofonisba Anguissola’s Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese being the highlights. The portraits depict a series of men in the most flamboyant and colourful costumes imaginable.
As a contrast, a series of examples of designers of today’s hottest designers is interwoven into the exhibition, with work by Harris Reed, Grace Wales Bonner, Ahluwalia, and Martine Rose.
The idea here is that what we think of as modern: the clever mix of masculine and feminine, the flamboyant and surprising use of colour, is nothing new – it has been with us for centuries.
The last room, Redress, documents male fashion’s rather sad lurch towards sober and pragmatic dressing – a move which was almost certainly driven by the march of capitalism and commerce. Cabinet after cabinet of black or grey coats and suits hammer home the point as male fashion is reduced to the mere functional and formal.
However, the exhibition ends with a nod towards some of the trends that we are witnessing in the swinging twenties. The stunning crystal covered suit worn by Timothée Chalamet at the 2021 Venice Film Festival is included as is Harry Styles’ gorgeous Gucci designed lace frock which the artist wore for the cover of the December 2020 edition of US Vogue.
Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear is at the V&A Museum from the 19th of March until the 6th of November 2022. More information about the exhibition can be found here.
For information on other great exhibitions in London, please click here.