Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear Back

The history of men’s fashion seems to be having a moment. ‘Dandy Style’ is opening at Manchester Art Gallery next month, and ‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ is this summer’s blockbuster exhibition at the V&A. This is good news for those interested in the long eighteenth century, since this period was key to the development of men’s fashion, and it is well represented here.

Indeed, the chronology of ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ starts in the eighteenth century. In a way, this was an obvious choice, since the three piece suit dominates the exhibition, and it had its origins in the ensemble of breeches, waistcoat and frock coat worn by Georgian patricians. The exhibition also highlights how later generations of designers went back to the eighteenth century, appropriating or paying tribute to its style.

On the other hand, it is a jarring place to start, as the exhibition seeks to emphasise the transgression of toxic norms. As its sponsor Gucci puts it, ‘it seems necessary to suggest a desertion, away from patriarchal plans and uniforms’. But pre-modern gender regimes were more fluid than that, and the flamboyant and playful fashions of the eighteenth century – that are so appealing to designers today – were often sported by the establishment and those who sought to join them.

Appropriately enough, the exhibition begins with undress, thinking about the naked form and undergarments. The first clothing that you encounter is an eighteenth-century undershirt, which is surprisingly billowy and formless given how structured contemporary dress could be. It was the outer garments that formed the Georgian male body, in contrast with the structured underclothing worn by women, or indeed the fitted underwear worn by men today.

There are some beautiful examples of eighteenth-century frock coats, drawing on highlights from the V&A’s own collection and those elsewhere. Only the most colourful garments, made from the very finest materials, make their way into this exhibition. One display case celebrates the prevalence of pink in mid-century menswear. These bright colours were paired with glittering accessories, such as bejewelled buckles and swords. As Paul Langford noted of Sir Robert Walpole’s style, the ideal was very much ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’.

Omar Victor Diop, jean-Baptiste Belley
2014, Courtesy MAGNIN-A Gallery, Paris

The importance of military uniforms to men’s fashion is acknowledged by ‘Fashioning Masculinities’. Military and civilian fashions had a reciprocal influence on one another. In times of war in particular, military fashion takes the lead: witness the adoption of trousers and boots during the 1790s. A coat belonging to Horatio Nelson is displayed here, showing its intricate tailoring and fine materials. More could perhaps have been made of this military theme, for the eighteenth and for later centuries.

The revolution in men’s fashion at the end of the eighteenth century is thoroughly explored here. On the face of it, the Regency dandy was a world away from his counterpart in the 1780s, as dark colours and a minimalist aesthetic prevailed. On the other hand, this exhibition conveys the fact that black clothing was anything but drab, and was in fact a very expensive status symbol. The dandy wardrobe was exquisitely tailored, and showed off the masculine form to best effect.

I only had two gripes. The first one is personal and predictable, given that I am currently researching men’s shoes. Footwear was a bit of an afterthought in this exhibition. Many mannequins did not have shoes, or had modern stand-ins, when there were shoes in the V&A’s own collections that could have been displayed here. Few shoes had captions, whereas all the other garments (and even accessories like snuffboxes) were individually described. At the other end of the body, hats and wigs were similarly neglected. The focus was on the cloth in the middle, rather than the whole ensemble: ironically, this made the garments on display feel rather disembodied.

Secondly, the exhibition was concerned with high society and high fashion. Fashion collections often skew elite, as they are the items that tend to be preserved, and this is often reflected in the exhibitions that draw upon them. Working men appear occasionally here, such as life models for artists seeking to capture the brawny ideal of ancient Greece, but fashion does not have to be about elites. There was a story to be told about how humbler folk engaged with fashion, not least because the eighteenth century had such a thriving second-hand market for it, which meant that fine clothes could make their way down the social scale.

Given that the more contemporary end of the exhibition was concerned with celebrities and top designers, however, the focus on elites in the earlier parts of the exhibition was understandable. You won’t necessarily get the whole picture of men’s fashion from this show, but it tells a fascinating story in an exciting and engaging way. If you are interested in fashion, masculinity or sexuality, I would urge you to go and see it.

‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 6 November. In partnership with Gucci.