The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) recently opened an exhibition aptly named “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715-2015,” focused solely on men’s fashion and its reflection of social, political, and ideological change in the past three centuries. As men’s fashion is often overshadowed by women’s, which tends to be more free-form and avant-garde, this exhibit provided an excellent opportunity to gain insight into the lesser-known side of the fashion world.
The exhibit itself was beautifully curated. It was organized according to five concepts central to men’s fashion throughout history, and within each section was a chronological progression using garments from the respective time periods as well as present-day designs from the likes of Helmut Lang, Jeremy Scott, Pierre Cardin, and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
The first of the five concepts was “Revolution/Evolution,” which focused on menswear as an expression of anarchy and rebellion—from the Macaroni, a group of notably dapper men in 1770s Britain to whom many later fashion trends can be attributed, to zoot-suiters, mods, punks, and New Romantics, who used their bold style to signify defiance of the authority. Each of the five concepts in the exhibit subtly teaches a lesson about personal style. This one emphasized fashion’s external power to send a distinct message about the wearer’s personal ideology to the rest of the world—not just as an indicator of a person’s means and ideas of aesthetics but also as an indicator of their philosophy and politics.
The second was “East/West,” highlighting the cultural intersections that resulted in several movements in men’s fashion, including the Crimean War in the 1850s, which catalyzed the popularization of smoking cigarettes and cigars over pipes, resulting in the quintessential leisure garment: the smoking jacket. Also included were physical manifestations of the influence of commerce and diplomacy between the East and West, exemplified by a series of garments in a traditionally Eastern style executed using Western fabric and vice versa. In the same way that knowledge of art history provides artists with context and meaning for their work, an awareness of the impact of other cultures on modern fashion provides an individual with a consciousness of the implications of their dress.
Next was “Uniformity,” which explored the relationship between man and uniform in military, work, business, informal, active, and formal wear. A variety of contemporary trends were examined, from the matelot (the classic white and navy-striped shirt reminiscent of maritime uniform), to the trench coat, camouflage, and jumpsuits. For men, much more than for women, the ‘uniform’ is a valuable facet of personal style. Due to the comparably small amount of variety available in men’s fashion, it is less stigmatized for men to adhere to a certain formula of dressing. Many incredibly powerful men are known to dress in this efficient behavior. For example, Steve Jobs in his black mock-neck and faded jeans, Jean Nouvel, a French architect who wears only white all summer and only black during the rest of the year, and Karl Lagerfeld, who infamously wears a black suit with a high-collared white shirt, black sunglasses, and leather gloves at all times. A personal uniform with a twist can help an individual create a style that is profoundly their own while saving both time and money.
Then came “Body Consciousness,” a theme often overlooked in the history of men’s fashion. This section observed changes in idealization of the male form and how they were addressed by the industry. It consisted of two parts: body modification and exposing the body. The former included male corseting and padding in clothing, which went as far as to pad thighs and calves in hopes of endowing the recipient with a more masculine shape, and the latter a collection of male swimsuits and sheer garments, aimed at showcasing a man’s physique. In terms of personal style, this part of the exhibit speaks more to the ability of the men of today to expose or conceal whatever they choose.
Lastly, there was “The Splendid Man,” which contained the most lavish and awe-inspiring of the garments and followed the evolution of luxury and perceived masculinity in menswear. It analyzed changes in public taste regarding embroidery and precious stones in clothing, animal products, floral patterns, and color, and featured an array of high-fashion pieces that were simultaneously outrageous and wearable. This last part of the exhibit was especially poignant, hinting at what it means to be a fashion icon rather than a sheep of the industry and media. The cliché holds true—confidence is paramount, but true expression of the self beyond trends and societal norms, along with deliberate thoughtful presention of oneself are key to being not just fashionable, but truly stylish.