Don’t let the punning title of LACMA‘s new exhibition, Reigning Men, fool you. This exhibition of three centuries of menswear is no joke and helps one better understand the power of clothing throughout history to the present—which is, above all, the power of individual artistry. We never stop sending messages through our appearance, and Reigning Men helps decode those messages at a time of frenzied consumerism.
Fashion needn’t be a costly art form, but properly staging an exhibition of it is prohibitively expensive, which makes a great exhibition quite rare. Some institutions cut costs by displaying individual garments rather than full looks, omitting shoes or even heads and limbs. Authentic poses help imply movement in garments that were made for a living body, and mass-produced mannequins are not up to the task. Above all the material considerations, curators need time and resources to properly research all the elements and bring it all together accurately.
Reigning Men is one of the most scholarly fashion exhibitions you’ll see, the product of four years of research by LACMA’s department of Costume and Textiles, led by senior curator Sharon Takeda. When Takeda conceived an all-menswear exhibition and began working on it with curator Kaye Spilker and assistant curator Clarissa Esguerra, it became apparent to the team that such an exhibition was unprecedented. Most institutional fashion exhibits are devoted solely to womenswear, while just a few have gone coed, such as LACMA’s Fashioning Fashion in 2010. A major acquisition of menswear from collectors Martin Kamer and Wolfgang Ruf, funded in large part by Michael and Ellen Michelson, laid the foundation for this new show, and LACMA has spent the last few years filling in gaps and researching every piece.
Reigning Men comprises hundreds of pieces dating as far back as 1715, up to recent custom acquisitions and gifts from contemporary designers, including Kean Etro, Johnson Hartig of Libertine, Jeremy Scott and Walter van Beirendonck. The garments are presented in 200 looks on specially designed mannequins, complete with wigs in period styles. Even the mannequins’ poses were chosen according to documentation from each era to show how these garments would have hung on a living, social body.
The curators don’t impose a linear continuum on the history covered in Reigning Men. Individual looks are accompanied by texts explaining details of construction and historical context, and are presented in clusters that juxtapose fashions that arose generations apart. One sees how design elements and philosophies emerge cyclically at the intersection of politics, sociology and art, where fashion is born. Five broad themes form the framework for the exploration: Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness and The Splendid Male. The layout by LA-based design studio Commune presents each theme in its own room and color scheme, on custom daises. The first two rooms are crowded, perhaps overwhelming the senses but never obscuring the outfits.
As a reviewer, I am chagrined by how little I can reasonably discuss in a review. I can’t imagine how the curators felt in winnowing down the selection to the 200 final looks. When the show travels in the coming years, the looks will be cut to a third, so if at all possible one should not miss it in Los Angeles. It’s your only chance to see them all in one place. Either way, I highly recommend the catalog accompanying the show, as you simply cannot absorb everything in one visit—or two or three.
The clothes can transfix you, and it is often hard to believe that some of them are as old as the United States itself. There is so much history here. In the three centuries surveyed in Reigning Men: the ancien regime was toppled and the American colonies declared their independence; proles and bourgeoisie duked it out to establish new systems of commerce and rule; imperialism brought a fraught mingling of cultures; World Wars completely altered the European psyche; the United States became a world power, then the world power; musical subcultures defined their own modes; and the industrial revolution introduced mass production and an image culture that redefined what fashion meant and could be for everyone.
In short, the story of Reigning Men is the story of modernity in the west. It is still only a snapshot, but a richly textured, panoramic one.
Across cultures, one sees a natural drive to adorn the body, balancing between tribal identification and self-distinction. Certain motifs, textiles, colors and perfumes were reserved for the exclusive use of royalty, based on their preciousness and potency. To arrogate royal style was to risk injury or even death.
Adornment still confers power by signifying it, and in the 18th century, where Reigning Men begins, opulent court attire was de rigueur if one wanted to be taken seriously among noble and wealthy merchant classes. A courtly suit from the 1700s features metallic lace, fine stitching and layers of rich fabrics that cocoon the body in an aggressive show of wealth—a tendency seen again in the gilded age and in the bling aesthetics of today.
At a glance, a “Macaroni” outfit from the latter half of the 18th century is much the same. The materials are just as fine, the tailoring as modest in covering of the body, but the dyes, accessories and hairstyle are even more ostentatious. The Macaroni style—so named because its young, male adherents were traveling around continental Europe, eating such delicacies as Macaroni in Venice—sought to display cosmopolitanism through custom attire. The Macaroni male still wore breeches, but he represented a new age, one less confined to the centers of traditional power, and was consequently seen as frivolous by traditional members of the privileged classes.
This is in contrast to the sans-culottes men of the third estate in the French Revolution, who stormed the Bastille and relieved King Louis XVI of the heavy head that wore the crown. Sans-culottes attire (literally, “without breeches”) opted for simple shirts and trousers that have become the standard of casual clothing today. Not everyone in the Revolution gave up adornment, however. In the 1790s, the style known as incroyable didn’t eschew breeches or flounces, but used innovative cuts and patterned textiles to create an eccentric look. As for accessories, it swapped the decorative dress sword typical of the time for a cudgel-cum-walking stick known as a Hercules Club—which was both stylish and practical during such upheaval.
Centuries later, the incroyable look would inspire fashion designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Walter van Beirendonck. This revival was not superficial, but a concerted return to that most innate approach to adornment, which balances expressions of self and group. Rather than the imbalances seen in courtly attire (the hierarchical elevation of self) and the esprit de corps conformity of populist and militant movements (e.g. sans-culottes), the incroyable and later punk modes invited individual expression and eccentricity while still remaining recognizable, and that remains the soul of high style. Like all art, fashion can be used to oppose or perpetuate ruling norms and partisan divides. It’s up to the wearer.
Reigning Men takes us through these revolutions and the attire that symbolized these changes (and even helped manifest them). Over this time, we also see starker lines being drawn between “masculine” and “feminine” aesthetics, which is another consequence of the “virile” revolution—espoused by the likes of Robespierre and Karl Marx—against the “feminized,” passive tryphé of the first estate. Opulence didn’t disappear, but for men it went into hiding a bit. To find where it went, one must looks beyond Europe’s internal strife to its adventures (i.e. aggression) in the rest of the world.
Dressed to Kill
Encounters with exotic aesthetics inevitably lead to adaptation and assimilation, but this is not merely a form of flattery by imitation. A culture can resist disruption by consciously picking and choosing what it wants to absorb from a subculture or foreign culture, resulting in an aesthetic syncretism. In the late 19th century, this was happening on a national level from Europe to Japan, as newly unified nations and expanding nations sought to create a national aesthetic—sometimes borrowing shamelessly from others. (For example, Persian Paisley designs that entered Britain via India became popular, and were woven en masse in Scotland.)
The real consequence of international exchange more typically comes come from the creation of new markets, new technology, new desires. Clothing was not just the consequence, but the cause of these exchanges; silks and textiles created the trade routes between east and west for centuries, and later the demand for cotton and hemp was central to the American colonies.
Botanical and animal trophies of distant continents became a sign of worldliness for Europeans at the heart of empire, and floral motifs were considered unisex until the middle of the 19th century. Their relegation to feminine aesthetics was part of a larger shift that associated masculinity with more somber, a la guerre attire at a time when men were, indeed, constantly fighting against other nations, indigenous peoples and pirates. The dictum seemed to be conquer or be conquered.
The uniforms of Britain’s military men came from London’s Savile Row, which later adapted to become the capital of bespoke suits. Two centuries later, Savile Row remains the nonpareil destination for custom tailoring. (Reigning Men includes a suit from Ozwald Boateng, who in the ’90s made waves by opening the first new shop on Savile Row in generations.)
Military uniforms in the 19th century didn’t prioritize ease of movement or camouflage, instead focusing on the dignity of the soldier in his suit—even if it put him at a fatal disadvantage in enemy territory. Modern warfare eventually led to changes, but the padding and moulding techniques developed to idealized the uniformed male continue to be used today. The emergence of the slim silhouette in the last two decades (e.g. a suit by Hedi Slimane in the first room) was a major break from this tradition. Through colonization and the pillaging of antiquities, Europe also saw a revived interest in the Greco-Roman ideal of physiques. Broad shoulders and slim waists became associated with the soldier, virility and beauty. Men as much as women relied on corsetry to achieve a fashionable “wasp waist,” while shoulder pads also became standard.
Masculine attire was striking, but no longer fabulous…and men didn’t stop wanting to be fabulous. The Ottoman tobacco culture encountered by soldiers during the Crimean War (1835-56) provided a perfect excuse for returning to soldiers to layer on rich, colorful Turkish-style jackets and hats in the privacy of their homes. These garments prevented the smoke from seeping into a man’s hair and formal attire, while also allowing him to break from the austerity of the workaday uniform. It’s one of many examples in which aesthetics otherwise treated as feminine were given a pass because they were associated with the glories of empire, so long as they stayed between the salon and the closet. In the case of a smoking jacket on display made entirely of cigar ribbons, there is the added touch of personalized craft, a devotion to creating fabulosity within one’s means.
Reigning Men aptly places the East/West room as a bridge between revolutionary, rebellious attire and uniforms. These smoking jackets and the like weren’t just a cultural exchange between continents, but an example of the tension between the private individual and the strictures of the public domain.
Human beings are pack animals, and though we are troubled by a loss of identity, a uniform can become a matter of pride to members of a group or practitioners of a trade. In Reigning Men‘s collection of workwear, one observes how even mass-produced, utilitarian garments become fodder for personal style. The matalot of French mariners became associated also with bohemians like Picasso. In a more recent, literally blue-collar example, indigo coveralls used by engineers in the early 20th century were updated into a silky, padded version by designer Phillip Lim. The two are displayed side-by-side at LACMA. Lim’s coverall functions as a stylish garment, but its association with the utiliatrian silhouette gives it a dual sense of ease: a working class practicality and padded luxury, all seemingly straightforward.
The curation isn’t always so literal. For example, two all leather ensembles are displayed in very different sections. An original 1950s Langlitz leather biker outfit (complete with Muir cap) is positioned in a tableau of rebellion in the first room (not incidentally looking out the door, across the atrium, and into the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective). Langlitz leathers were favored by returning soldiers and scofflaws who wanted functional, durable protection against the elements while cutting an imposing figure. Meanwhile, the 1980s Chrome Hearts leather ensemble (a brand favored by Karl Lagerfeld) is all luxury. Other leather pieces are found scattered about, including a customized “Punk Jacket” from the late 70s and a leather vest by Helmut Lang, encrusted with what appear to be crushed bottle caps, referring to the earthy, urban bricolage of the genuine punk article.
And what do you wear with that leather jacket? Denim jeans are the most ubiquitous example of workwear becoming casual clothing and eventually high fashion. Their origin as affordable, durable pants for miners during the California Gold Rush is well known. The skinny jean trend today can be seen as the convergence of old workwear and the fitted, militaristic attire on display together, but above all denim jeans remain associated with youthful exuberance and rebellion…a far cry from the grind of California quarries.
Fashion makes a habit of turning ideas on their heads and none of it happens by accident. Camouflage in earthy tones may have a subdued palette, but it conjures immediate associations with militancy, a specific response to one’s environment. Camouflage in neon pinks and greens? An ensemble by Jeremy Scott for Adidas puts camouflage patterning in a day-glo colors, still conjuring battle-readiness…but now the battle is to be recognized, to not disappear into the herd.
Reigning Men also shows a gradual unveiling of the male body in the last century, as honed physiques grew more desirable and men sought to show them off, at times bucking codes of decency. (Male and female nipples were both taboo in the United States until the ’20s.) The show includes a swimwear suit that covers the entire body (circa 1900), a 1935 Jantzen swimsuit with detachable top, a unisex thong swimsuit (Rudy Gernreich, 1974), and finally a buttocks revealing golden thong by Tom Ford, whose most substantial element is a large Gucci medallion resting atop the mannequin’s sculpted posterior. In some circles, the clothes may still make the man as a symbol of standing and reputation, but the individual cannot rely solely on those clothes. The individual remains inseparable from the body, the will and, yes, the libido.
Dress for Succession
The seat of power shifts, from absolute monarchies (and dignitary and ecclesiastic estates) to ostensibly populist regimes…and then it shifts again through the creation of new markets, until capital becomes the ultimate rule. Commodities become symbols of power, and symbols of power become commodities, and the dizzying often vulgar rush for them is perhaps most visible in the world of fashion, especially fast fashion. This trend chasing creates obscene waste and fleeting benefits, so it is no wonder that some consumers view fashion as a game of fools and caprice, wherein, ironically, the emperor has no clothes.
That’s not the whole story; never has been, never will be. Reigning Men is not designed as an apologia for fashion, but it may serve as that for skeptics when they see the history charted, the beauty of the garments and the subversive artistry on display in contemporary designs. In some cases, clothing itself becomes scrutinized in deconstructed works (such as the exposed stitch jackets of Kean Etro, FW 2015) or formal mutations (Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons). For all the pomp around fashion, some of these artists clearly still have a sense of humor.
The final room, The Splendid Male, focuses on high fashion from the last few decades, wherein the divide between masculine and feminine begins to disintegrate and men are encouraged to be grand, weird and wild. Punk and new wave music was central to this switch, with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren leading the charge in their collaborations. Their work appears throughout the exhibition. Early on, they courted scandal with aggressive jabs at “good taste” (for example, a T-shirt emblazoned with the mask used by the Cambridge Rapist in the 1970s), and they changed the look and name of their collaborative boutique (at 430 Kings Road) many times in a concerted effort to buck consumer trends, before attaining mainstream success with their debut runway show in 1982.
The New Romantics look that the two pioneered was a post-punk and post-disco style that drew from the entire period examined by Reigning Men, from court attire to Dandyism to glam rock. This was a pivotal moment in fashion, as the door was now wide open to all forms of experimentation as designers revisited the last three centuries of fashion to the extent that it was understood. When the Westwood and McLaren parted ways, the latter focused on music, managing and designing for bands, including The Clash (whom he put together) and Bow Wow Wow. Westwood, meanwhile, continued in high fashion, growing more and more skilled as a tailor and designer. A 2014 suit from her looks rather conventional in comparison to her punk years, but her choice of textiles and details (such as an oblong Murray Hill collar) show an individual flair.
For many people, such things will remain unattainable, and so ingenuity and styling will remain the key. Crossing or erasing gender conventions, modifying or designing one’s own clothes rather than relying on mass production—these are just a few strategies still being employed by people today that don’t just speak to individual style, but to broader cultural concerns and fixations in the 21st century.
What’s current? Well, the fixation with health and fitness that peaked in the ’80s is peaking again in the appearance of more stylish athletic wear. Design houses are even working “Athleisure” pieces into their collections. Some of it nods to this trend while still being a high style item. A track suit by Jeremy Scott from 2013 used colors and designs that nod directly to the popularity of similar track suits in 1980s Hip Hop communities. In the show at LACMA, the suit is style with glossy boots dangling brass padlocks. It’s safe to say this suit is not actually being worn around the track.
What’s next? Who can say? We can at least be sure that it will have a forebear somewhere in this show.
Some have ventured (prematurely, I think) that we are living at the end of history. We certainly live in a moment of tension between lasting norms, new concerns and an unprecedented confluence of cultures. It can feel like chaos, and fashion can look more mercurial than ever as it tries to create a intimate, immediate architecture for the bodies living through it. Reigning Men, at a glance, can feel like another manifestation of that chaos as it compresses 300 years and several continents into five austere rooms. And yet, the difference is that when you walk out of the exhibition, back into the noise and haste of Los Angeles, the way we represent ourselves is much less confusing.
At the very least, it’s a great place to rethink one’s wardrobe. After all, if we are living at the end of history, we may as well dress for the occasion.
Reigning Men is on display at LACMA through August 21. In addition to info about the show, the costume and textile department blog on the LACMA website adds depth to specific pieces and shows just how beautifully designed they are with its pattern project, which thus far includes patterns for a Macaroni style jacket, a Tonbi and a Zoot Suit, whose history is given its own blog post. Check out all the patterns online.