The V&A recently starting opening seven days a week again (since Covid, they’d only been open Wednesday-Sunday), and since my preferred day for museuming is Tuesday, I was keen to pay them a visit (I hadn’t been since seeing Faberge in November). The Beatrix Potter exhibition was fully booked on the day I wanted to go, so I ended up booking “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear” instead. Most fashion exhibitions are geared more towards women’s clothing, and though obviously I love ogling fashions I would actually want to wear, I was intrigued to see an exhibition of men’s fashions for a change, particularly as the theme of the exhibition was exploring concepts of masculinity and gender through fashion.
The exhibition cost £20 (£10 with Art Pass) which seemed a little steep for the smallish gallery they normally have fashion exhibitions in, so I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and discovered it was actually in the Sainsbury Gallery, their fancy newish underground exhibition space. I was somewhat dismayed when a large group of fashion students arrived at the same time as us (even if they hadn’t been wearing their student badges, I would have been able to tell from the fleekness of their eyebrows. Do kids even still say on fleek?), thinking it would be very crowded, but the spaces are so large and open it was actually not bad at all inside, and we were easily able to navigate the exhibition without having to queue.
The museum warned that there would be nudity in this exhibition, and they weren’t shy about jumping into it right from the start, with various photographs of nude men, clothing featuring penises, and a video of a naked man gyrating around (not that any of this was a problem for me). The first room of the exhibition was focused mainly on contemporary designers and some of their gender bending designs, such as skirts and shapewear for men. It also talked a bit about homosexuality in the mid-late 20th century and the way the gay community played with popular conceptions of masculinity.
After the first room, the exhibition focused more on men’s fashions throughout history, starting with the early modern period and progressing through to the 20th century, along with modern styles influenced by historical fashion. Needless to say, I generally preferred the historical fashions – those giant ridiculous shoes certainly aren’t doing that pink outfit any favours.
This segment of the exhibition was focused primarily on the role of colour in men’s fashions prior to the 19th century, when things took a turn for the drab. This was largely due to the invention of industrial dyes – before that, most dyes were made from natural materials, which could be expensive to make, so wearing brightly coloured clothing signified wealth (by the time the Victorians rolled around, this was no longer the case, so the upper classes could live out all their goth desires and still flaunt their wealth). For example, there was a fad for the colour yellow, which in China was only permitted to be worn by the emperor and his family, but when it became popular in the West, they quickly developed a version for the export market (which was still out of the reach of the lower classes).
Though I loved the colourful clothes, I also loved the 19th century part of the exhibition, which contained a massive wall of drab black suits and explained how the shape of the suit evolved over the course of the Victorian era. I’m not a tailor, so I don’t exactly understand how all this works, but what I got from the interpretation panels was that men’s coats were originally laboriously constructed from many different pieces of fabric, but as they started to become mass produced, tailors developed a way to reduce the number of pieces of fabric used by carrying the weight of the bottom part of the coat in the waistband. This allowed them to develop longer “skirts” on the coats, which invariably became narrower, as that was seen as a more masculine silhouette (and honestly, I love a long slim-fitting coat, and would totally wear some of the ones on display).
I also loved the 20th century part of the exhibition, which featured a display of tuxedos, including one worn by Marlene Dietrich (I’m embarrassed to tell you how much I paid for a pair of woolen Marlene Dietrich inspired suit trousers with matching waistcoat, but I get compliments every time I wear them, so maybe it was worth it); a display of photographs of mods taken in the ’60s, and the Edward VIII inspired trend for fair isle knits. (I know the man was a Nazi sympathizer, but I absolutely love that portrait of him with the dog, and I’m not going to turn down a fair isle jumper either.)
The denouement of the exhibition was a room containing a few dresses that were all famously worn by men, including Harry Styles. This seemed a fitting end – through showing us examples of fashion throughout history that don’t fit into the narrow constructs of modern masculinity (as defined by the more conservative elements of society), the whole exhibition seemed to be leading us to the conclusion that masculinity can be defined however you want it to be, and anyone can wear any clothing they like, though in the real world, obviously some people are still going to have prejudices, and this is probably easier said than done if you don’t happen to live in a big city or liberal area (based on the reactions I used to get to my unusual hairstyles in my youth, including one man who told me I should be dragged into the street and shot for having a blue mohawk). All this being said, I ended up enjoying this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the focus on menswear. There were some great outfits here accompanied by good interpretation, the latter of which seems increasingly rare these days. It runs until November, so you’ve got plenty of time to go and see it if you find yourself in London. 4/5.