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In Review. V&A’s Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear

Marcus Jaye
17 March 2022

Hoping to take the toxicity out of masculinity and give a fresh lens onto the world of menswear is the Victoria & Albert Museum’s latest show, Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear.

Unbelievably, it is the first major V&A exhibition to celebrate “the power, artistry and diversity of masculine attire and appearance”. Presenting around 100 looks and 100 artworks, displayed thematically across three galleries, it features the extravagance of the European courts to the subtle elegance of bespoke tailoring to the vitality of today’s international fashion scene, all fashioned and refashioned over the centuries.

Extravagance from European courts sits alongside more contemporary designs

Contemporary looks by established designers and rising stars sit alongside historical treasures from the V&A’s collections and landmark loans: classical sculptures, Renaissance paintings, iconic photographs, and powerful film and performance.

Gender is like night and day or light and dark, it changes all the time. It is pretty much established that men can wear pink nowadays. Even Niccolò Machiavelli recorded a quip by Cosimo the Elder “in his Istorie back in 1526 that 'two yards of pink cloth can make a gentleman’”.

Pink looks from Harris Reed, Thom Browne and PRONOUNCE

This is such a big subject that it is hard to focus. What are you supposed to take away?

With an exhibition like 2019’s Dior: Designer of Dreams, for example, the subject line is already established and the curators simply have to flesh it out and select the best examples. The Art of Menswear, however, is a subject that could go in any direction

There is plenty of decoration here; it could do with focusing on a few key characters or historical influencers. There is a portrait and suit of Edward VIII and Cecil Beaton’s fancy dress bunny outfit that could easily have an exhibition on their own. The exhibition could have been called “Influencers in Menswear” or “Menswear in Art” and had more detail. It’s usually the people that make clothes more interesting.

The Undressed Room

Masculine energy, good or bad, is missing. The first room “Undressed” feels confused and flat and doesn’t really inject anything sexual into the proceedings. There is no desire here and little objectification. It’s the difference between male beauty and masculinity. One is much easier to visualise than the other.

Where the exhibition did get stronger was with the portraiture. Historical portraits mixed with doublets, gloves and the most fantastic Grinling Gibbons carved cravat once owned by Horace Walpole. The rest of the exhibition was a kind of greatest hits, but with a few B-sides and modern remixes thrown in.

Menswear through the ages

Sponsored by Gucci there is an expectation of an over-the-top wowness from the Italian brand which is missing here. The V&A should have been Guccified and made over like Oscar Wilde’s velvet lined panic room, but it just feels a little flat.

These blockbuster exhibitions need to feel like the best retail, just with the world’s finest objects, where you are seduced and bounced along the show.

Dresses for Harry Styles, Billy Porter and Bimini

Ironically, the room with the most masculine energy was the final room which houses Billy Porter’s, Harry Styles’ and Bimini’s dresses with a black glossy floor and film projection. It felt contemporary, confident and uplifting, while spilling the beans that Anna Wintour made the final decision to add a tailored jacket to the Gucci saloon dress in Harry Styles’ American Vogue cover look. Now, that is fashioning masculinity.

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear runs at the V&A from 19 March – 6 November 2022.

Main image: A Gucci suit worn by Harry Styles. All images: Courtesy of V&A.

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