Charting the relationship between masculinity and menswear at Victoria and Albert

A new exhibition at the London museum highlights how male clothing has been a mechanism for encouraging conformity and expressing individuality

Harry Styles in Gucci pre-fall 2019. Photo: Gucci
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“This will be a celebration of the masculine wardrobe, and everyone is invited to join in,” says Claire Wilcox and Rosalind McKever, co-curators of Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear.

Opening on Saturday and running until November, the show is entirely devoted to dissecting menswear, exploring its role in self-expression and highlighting how men today are dressing beyond the binary.

Despite the richness of the topic, this is the first show of its kind for the V&A. Even though it is home to one of the most substantial fashion collections in the world, the intricacies of male dress have been largely overlooked by the museum, in favour of its flashier female counterpart.

Gucci introduced pussy bow blouses into its autumn/winter 2015 menswear collection. Photo: Gucci

Promising to “unpick the seams” of preconceptions around men’s clothing — from its lavish past to the current decline of the suit — the exhibition is divided into three central galleries: Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed.

Undressed looks at how classical art views the male form, while Overdressed shows the splendour of menswear through colour and court dress. Redressed, meanwhile, looks at the suit, and how modern dress codes are undergoing something of a revolution. “Masculine fashion is enjoying a period of unprecedented creativity,” say Wilcox and McKever.

With the help of Marta Franceschini, Wilcox and McKever have gathered 100 looks from the museum’s archives, and assembled more than 100 priceless artworks by the likes of Auguste Rodin and Joshua Reynolds. Contemporary looks from Tom Ford, Gucci, Prada and A-Cold-Wall have been called in and scattered throughout the space, alongside stage costumes worn by Harry Styles, David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich, who have all blurred gender lines.

Fittingly sponsored by Gucci, the label that triggered a new era when it introduced pussy bow blouses into menswear collections in January 2015, the show opens with a deconstructed spring/summer 2021 suit by Craig Green. A hybrid creation that melds clothing, armour and metal framing, it is a far cry from dress-down Friday attire, instead exhorting the view that men’s fashion “has long been a powerful mechanism for encouraging conformity or expressing individuality”.

A deconstructed spring/summer 2021 suit by Craig Green. Photo: Amy Gwatkin

For Wilcox and McKever, the choice of such a provocative piece to open the show is deliberate. “Rather than a linear or definitive history, this is a journey across time and gender. The exhibition will bring together historical and contemporary looks with art that reveal how masculinity has been performed,” they say.

The first gallery, Undressed, begins with the Greco-Roman ideal of man as athlete, clad only in folds of drapery. Plaster copies of the Farnese Hermes statue and the Apollo Belvedere show this classical portrayal of male beauty, pitched against the body-positive self-portraiture of contemporary photographer Anthony Patrick Manieri.

A short dance film, called Spitfire, will also be on show. Created by Matthew Bourne, who was behind the 1995 all-male ballet rendition of Swan Lake, it is set in the world of men’s underwear advertising, while nearby, designs by Jean Paul Gaultier and A-Cold-Wall upend traditional dress codes. The tortured beauty of Auguste Rodin’s Age of Bronze, meanwhile, is shown next to a performance piece by the artist Cassils, where an ice-carved male torso is slowly melted by the artist’s own body heat.

Pieces by Orange Culture feature in the exhibition. Photo: Adebayo Oke-Lawal / Orange Culture

The second gallery space, Overdressed, examines the ostentation of men’s clothing, both historically and today. Worn as a statement of prestige and power, men’s outfits were lavish in the extreme and decked in lace and ribbons. A 1560 portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese, by Sofonisba Anguissola, presents the prince in an ermine-lined vest of gold jacquard and is shown next to a contemporary cape by Dolce & Gabbana, suggesting that decadent trappings as a telegrapher of status have never gone out of vogue.

Pink, a colour often anathema in men’s fashion, is highlighted in the work of designers Grace Wales Bonner, Harris Reed and even Randi Rahm, whose cloak for Billy Porter at the Golden Globes in 2019 is on display in all its cerise-lined glory.

An oil on canvas portrait of Charles Coote. Photo: National Gallery of Ireland

This is placed alongside a 1774 portrait by Joshua Reynolds of Charles Coote, the first Earl of Bellomont, who is immortalised in a floor-length pink satin cape, ivory breeches and a buttoned coat. Also on show is a colourful parade of looks by Kim Jones for Fendi, Alessandro Michele for Gucci and Bangladeshi-British designer Rahemur Rahman. The addition of Ahluwalia and Orange Culture, meanwhile, show how ideas of what constitutes masculinity have shifted over time.

The third and final gallery, Redressed, looks at the rise of the suit as an unofficial uniform, from the rigid aesthetic of Beau Brummell to today’s catwalk. Providing another burst of rebellion is Nicholas Daley, the young British menswear designer who echoes the subversive subtext of kilts — deemed so anti-establishment the English banned them in 1746.

Teddy boys donned tailored suits to forge counterculture identities. Photo: Chris Steele-Perkins Magnum Photos

Vintage photography shows how the Mods, Teds and rude boys all turned to sharp tailored suits to forge counterculture identities, now displayed alongside mid-19th century frock coats from the archives. The impeccable cutting skills of Prada, Tom Ford, Raf Simons and Alexander McQueen are hailed as boundary-pushing, while shifting attitudes are captured in images of Oscar Wilde, Cecil Beaton and The Beatles, as well as pictures by Claude Cahun, the French Surrealist photographer whose work challenged gender roles at a time when women still needed legal permission to wear trousers.

The 1981 series by artist Robert Longo, Men in the Cities, tracks the demise of the suit, while work by designers such as Rick Owens, JW Anderson and Comme des Garcons also helps to upend preconceptions of what, precisely, menswear is meant to be.

Updated: March 19, 2022, 9:02 AM