I will not lie, it was the promise of seeing the dress worn by Harry Styles on the cover of American Vogue that drew me to visit the ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ exhibition at the V&A. Harry Styles is indeed one of the fresh faces who is not only jumping the boundaries of men’s fashion, but reshaping them entirely. It is fitting, then, that two Gucci pieces worn by Styles feature in the V&A’s exhibition that tells a story of how masculinities have evolved through fashion.
What is most striking about ‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ is how it portrays menswear as daring, versatile and liberating. Beyond defying norms around masculinity, the display of eclectically patterned, brightly coloured, laced and embroidered suits, dresses and jackets questions how such stereotypes ever came to be. Although the exhibition includes over one hundred garments and one hundred accompanying artworks, it is not too overwhelming. It is a selective collection of stand-out outfits which, arranged thematically, showcase the highlights of European menswear past and present. The exhibition curators sought to display how central the role of fashion is in constructing and preforming gender and that menswear can be as exciting as womenswear.
The exhibit begins with ‘undressed’: a look at the ideal masculine physique and how clothes are used to contour the body with a reflection on Greek mythology and classical sculpture. With ‘overdressed’, the exhibition unpicks the shifting symbolism of floral patterns and the colour pink in menswear. The final section ‘redressed’ breaks down what it means to wear a suit. One thing I learnt is that a suit need not be plain black and therefore boring. Masculine attire can be flamboyant, powerful and jaw-dropping and when it wants to, it can also be refined and elegant. ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ continues with the thought that masculinities and femininities are relational and begins to blur the boundaries between them altogether when it includes portraits of women in masculine attire throughout history, alongside clips of modern-day actors in cross-dressing roles.
Naturally, as an exhibition made in partnership with Gucci, its focus is on high-end fashion. As a result, the clothing was nothing short of spectacular; each item a work of art that deserves its place behind the exhibition-glass. Even if the overall meaning of the exhibit does not wow you, then the workmanship behind each individual piece will surely impress. For me, it was the hand-embellished silver and pink cape that stole the show. The cape was designed by New York designer Randi Rahm for Billy Porter’s 2019 Golden Globes look. The cape of embroidered flowers and its matching suit took six months to make and stands as majestically in the V&A exhibition hall as it did when modelled by Porter on the red carpet. Really, it’s an honour to see some of these garments so up close and to be able to feel their presence.
Although this exhibition was more than manageable in under an hour, I would say it was potentially too short. Without showcasing more clothing, there was scope for more detailed information about the individuals behind the pieces, which I think could only have enriched the display. The garments were most impactful when there was a greater sense of the personalities and stories of the designers, tailors and wearers behind each outfit, such was the case in the final gallery ‘dressed’. Alongside Harry Styles’ Vogue cover look, this final gallery displays Billy Porter’s tuxedo gown and the wedding dress worn by RuPaul Drag Race’s Bimini Bon-Boulash. It is these gowns and the viral moments they created that continue to inspire a redesigned future of gendered fashion.
If you are interested in fashion history, gender studies or are simply looking for inspiration as to how you can style up a tux, then I would recommend a visit to ‘Fashioning Masculinities’.
‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’ opened at London’s V&A museum on 19th March and continues until 6th November.
Illustration: Verity Laycock