​it’s reigning men: three centuries of menswear is on display in la

From uniformity to peacocking, as a new exhibition at LACMA opens we uncover the ways menswear has (and hasn't) changed over the years.

by Dean Kissick
18 April 2016, 12:27pm

LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) has one of the world's greatest collections of European and American menswear and its latest exhibition, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715 - 2015, is a bold celebration of three centuries of outfits that intends to show that menswear is just as inventive and just as important as womenswear. As it is almost entirely made up of clothes on mannequins -- hundreds of them -- visiting is like walking through the window display of your dreams: one encompassing over 50 contemporary designers and fashion houses as well as many unique historical pieces from the days before brands, and slowly unfolding across five thematic rooms. It looks amazing, yes, but also presents a visual argument that the historical path towards today's gender-fluidity in menswear might have come from men themselves rather than from womenswear.

Walter Van Beirendonck, Ensemble, fall/winter 00

The Splendid Man
In a room themed around "The Splendid Man" one of Frida Giannini's flowery Gucci suits from spring/summer 14 is displayed alongside an embroidered floral waistcoat from 1780. The two are strikingly similar. It was only around the mid-19th century that this sort of decorative, blooming motif came to be regarded as unmanly; before that there was a popular interest in botany motivated by books of illustrations and voyages around the world, and an aristocrat might have his clothing embroidered with flowers as a symbol of his worldliness and wealth and spacious gardens. These dandies of the 18th-century courts were fond of peacocking around in garments embellished with sparkling glass stones, metallic embroidery, fine lace, animal furs and lurid colors, and many of these trends have resurfaced lately. A couple of memorable examples on display here are a 90s pinstripe wool suit completely covered in shimmering plastic sequins by Franco Moschino for Cheap and Chic and -- as a slice of pure Hollywood menswear -- a python-skin suit from Cavalli's fall/winter 07 collection. (This last item could have come straight out of international-man-of-modelizing James Goldstein's wardrobe and, as a side note, Goldstein has just donated his world-famous John Lautner house, the concrete-and-glass-spaceship-like one from The Big Lebowski, to LACMA.)

At Home Robe, England, 1880. Slipper, China, 1870

East / West
So, men's styles that are considered feminine are often derived from old aristocratic society in the West, which in turn often derived them exotic cultures in the East, and this is one of the themes of the "East/West" room. 18th-century banyan robes imported from India recall an era when European gentlemen lazed around their houses in resplendent, orientalist morning gowns brought back by traders sailing around the world, like Japanese kimonos and Middle-Eastern kaftans. A century later the trend was for smoking jackets and here in Los Angeles -- home of Hugh Hefner, who roams the grottos of the Playboy Mansion in his velvety, dark crimson, floral-embroidered number -- a selection of English smoking suits and caps is on show. These really caught on around the time of the Crimean War (1853 - 56) when soldiers appropriated the smoking habits and attire of their Ottoman-Turkish allies, throwing away their pipes in favor of cigarettes and cigars. So that louche Marc-Jacobs-pajamas-in-the-daytime look really comes from a culture of soldiers hanging out with their mates and smoking too much.

Jeremy Scott with Adidas, fall/winter 13

Body Consciousness
A city closely associated with bodycon womenswear is a good place to tell the story of two centuries of bodycon menswear, beginning with an early-19th-century revival of interest in Ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics led to a new ideal form for men's bodies: broad shoulders and a slim "wasp" waist, much the same as it is today. Until then men's body-shapes were mostly concealed under their clothing but afterwards they were exaggerated with elaborate techniques cinching, molding, tailoring and padding. A pair of cinched corseted underpants from 1830s France are displayed next to a Jean Paul Gaultier corset from his fall/winter 92 collection Photography Maniacs and while the 19th-century example is white and demure and the 1992 example is golden-reflective and ends just below the nipples, the silhouettes are really similar. Other playful modern takes on trendy body consciousness include a pair of inflatable trousers by Naoki Takizawa for Issey Miyake, an inflatable muscle jacket by Walter Van Beirendonck and a sultry, revealing sheer shirt by Helmut Lang sheer shirt for his spring/summer 02 collection Homme Femme. Today, with the seeming return of the working-out and body-sculpting mania of the 80s, it's likely we'll see a lot more sheer clothing and scanty cladding as men want to show off their bodies -- for instance, that dressing-room selfie of Cristiano Ronaldo and his Real Madrid teammates.

With the history of dress comes the history of undress and Reigning Men includes a potted history of swimwear from the turn of the century, when men were almost completely covered up in puritanical bathing costumes, to the 70s when they were hardly wearing anything at all: the most memorable example of this period is a 1974 thong swimsuit by obscene and brilliant Austrian-born, Jewish-American designer Rudi Gernreich, a proto-mankini way ahead of its time. Another timeless piece of swimwear on show is a thin white Tom Ford for Gucci thong from 1997 that culminates in a golden double-G sitting just at the top of the butt-crack (for this garment the curators have positioned the mannequin facing cheekily away from us). Cristiano would surely approve.

Comme des Garcons, spring/summer 13

Over the years menswear has often taken a very different path from womenswear, for instance much of menswear has its origins in the uniforms of the all-male military. London's Savile Row, the spiritual home of tailoring, actually grew out of the need for military uniforms in late 18th-century Britain; on this little London street they were molded, stitched and steamed into the idealized silhouettes desired by the military officers of the day. Many other examples are on display: a Gaultier sailor top from his spring/summer 02 Peace & Love collection is shown alongside an example from the 19th-century French Navy; a Burberry trench coat was originally designed for British officers in the trenches in World War I; Yves Saint Laurent's classic 1968 Rive Gauche safari jacket takes inspiration from the Norfolk jacket used by British Volunteer Rifle Corps in the 19th century. Something often overlooked in menswear is how much of it was designed for killing. These garments are about much more than just functionality and craft; they contain a dark history of violence, and were often designed for power and conquest.

Coat and vest, detail, France, 1800

Revolution / Evolution
The exhibition's opening room "Revolution/ Evolution" includes the clothing of the working-class French Revolutionary (1789 - 99) militants known as sans-culottes ("without knee breeches") because of their practical trousers and hip-length carmagnole jackets, which became the template for everyday men's dressing today: comfortable trousers and a jacket. However, on the other side of the divide, the last few years of the Revolution was also the time of the ostentatious incroyables ("incredibles"), striped and extravagant gangs of aristocrats that roamed the streets in thick musk-based fragrances and wildly exaggerated silhouettes. This historical look is assembled on one of the mannequins and, visiting the show before it opened, John Galliano was reported to have studied it and commented, "The details are fantastic, bravo to the wig couturier! I've studied this period -- my graduation collection was inspired by the incroyables, the sans-culottes, the French Revolution."

So certain styles keep echoing through the ages. Reigning Men shows how, although the designers keep changing, the broader trends of dress keep on recurring. It also shows how the history of menswear is more detached from womenswear than might be assumed. The idea of gender-fluid menswear might well promise a bright new future but is also deeply entwined in the past: in extravagant displays of inherited wealth, in old European colonialism, in 19th-century slacker culture, and in aggressive military pomp.


Text Dean Kissick
All images copyright Museum Associates/LACMA

reigning men