‘In a patriarchal society, masculine gender identity is often moulded by violently toxic stereotypes’, writes Gucci Creative director Alessandro Michele in the preamble of his AW22 collection. ‘It’s time to celebrate a man who is free to practise self-determination, without social constraints, without authoritarian sanctions.’
In recent years, men’s fashion has experienced an exciting and tangible transition. While the 2010s saw the elevation of streetwear to mainstream culture and luxury fashion — thanks to designers such as Virgil Abloh — the post #metoo 2020s are seeing an unprecedented vitality coinciding with a wider reconsideration of gender identity and action on equality.
From the powerful digital influence of fashion-forward artists of the likes of music icon Harry Styles, K-pop group BTS or movie star Timothée Chalamet, and boys trending on TikTok and Instagram wearing skirts, to the growing importance of gender-less fashion shows, wearers and makers are breaking free from traditional models of masculinity.
But is this phenomenon unfamiliar? Well, not really. The new V&A exhibition Fashioning Masculinities explores how fashion as a way of expressing identity has always pushed boundaries while simultaneously revisiting trends of the past.
Curators Claire Wilcox (behind the Alexandre McQueen, Savage Beauty and Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up blockbuster exhibitions) and Rosalind McKever have been researching thousands of items for the past four years and eventually selected hundreds of attires and artworks to reconstruct the history of menswear in the Western world.
Their selection is broken up into four main chapters. In the first gallery called ‘Undressed’, we are invited to explore classical Greek and Roman influences over men's fashion, celebrating body perfection from plasters of classical statues to displays of underwear and transparent ensembles. The ‘Overdressed’ gallery revisits men's fashion during the Renaissance. The radical change towards a more flamboyant dressing — fashion became then a sign of wealth and power — sees the use of sumptuous fabrics, bright colours, patterns and ostentatious embellishment. The third room titled 'Redressed' examines the rapid changes in fashion during the industrial revolution, the art of tailoring of its seemingly more restraint aspect and the predominance of British textiles, from tartans to Burberry checks. It then explores the suit in all its glory — from Marlene Dietrich's tuxedo to Haider Ackermann’s sequinned ensemble worn by Timothée Chalamet on the red carpet for the ‘Dune’ premiere -- to its ultimate dissolves and reinterpretation.
Throughout the show, historical pieces are placed alongside contemporary ones, showcasing not only how today's designers are influenced by the past - for example, a Kim Jones Fendi ensemble bears striking resemblance to a court suit stemming from the 18th century -- but also how body aesthetics has evolved through the past centuries. The idea of what is 'fashionable' changes continually and so is the notion of the ideal body.
What is certain is that however crazy or boundary-pushing we consider current fashion trends to be, ‘I don’t see anything happening today that hasn’t already happened in history,’ as concluded by Claire Wilcox.
The exhibition’s grand finale ‘Dressed’ showcases three fabulous gowns once worn by Harry Styles, actor and author Billy Porter and drag star Bimini Bon Boulash. They are presented against the backdrop of a large scale projection of a film created by mixed media artist Quentin Jones and reflected on a gigantic mirror.
For all their magnificence, the gowns are strangely terrifying. Seeing myself next to them in the mirror, I am stuck by my own tiny feminine insignificance.
Can men’s fashion ever free itself from the toxicity of masculine power, I wonder?
|What||Fashioning Masculinities, V&A review|
|Where||V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
19 Mar 22 – 06 Nov 22, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM