Costume and textile curators Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker have been thinking about mounting an exhibit of menswear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a very long time. It all started in 2006, when LACMA acquired a large collection of European men's, women's and children's clothing from the 18th and 19th centuries. "We were astounded at how much incredible menswear there was," says Spilker. "We thought, everybody is always doing women's wear. It's time for us to think about doing men's." And so they did. The newly opened exhibit at LACMA is Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015. The curators (along with assistant costume and textiles curator Clarissa Esguerra) had to wait to formulate their idea — they had yet to produce Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail 1700-1915, which opened at the museum in 2010.
"Once we decided to do it though, it became an obsession!," she said the other day, walking through the current men's wear exhibit. "It was a learning experience because our focus has always been women's, but the same research questions apply."
Five years in the making, "Reigning Men" thematically surveys 300 years of men's fashion from the 18th to the early 21st century. Historical pieces are displayed next to contemporary pieces from notable designers. "People are surprised it takes so long," Spilker said about the process of creating the show. The three curators had to first determine what was in their own collection, then decide what would have to be supplemented by loans and designer contributions. In the end, 90 percent of the pieces on display came from in-house, 10 percent from outside sources.
"We always had the idea that we would juxtapose the historical with contemporary to show that there's nothing new under the sun," she said. The themes used to bring the 200 looks into focus are Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, and The Splendid Man.
Left, Army Tank Suit from England 1940-45. Right, Zoot Suit 1940-42. Above right, Macaroni ensemble from Italy 1770.
Fashion has always reflected issues of identity as well as a multitude of influences — cultural, political and relational. This is as true for men as it is for women. There are examples of this throughout the exhibit. A "Macaroni" ensemble, worn by well-to-do young Englishmen in the late 18th century, jumps out at viewers as they first enter the galleries. The "Macaroni" look was known for its bright colors and slim cuts, and those who adapted it were keen to exert a "cosmopolitan" image. Across the room is the iconic "Zoot Suit," worn by urban (often Latino and African-American) youths in the 1930s and early 1940s. And smack between the two is a "punk" jacket from the late 1970s/early '80s. The origins of camouflage and its influence on fashion are highlighted by placing an "Army Tank Suit" from 1940's England next to a Jean Paul Gaultier silk and feather coat, dyed to look like camouflage, from 2011. The changing silhouette of work and business wear is represented by jeans and suits. Close by are several examples of the tuxedo, which Spilker calls the "consummate contemporary uniform." In an area dedicated to "at home wear," a colorfully graphic Rudi Gernreich caftan makes a bold statement about the influence of Eastern style on Western fashion.
The evolution of men's bathing suits is addressed, as is the role of fashion in sculpting the look of men's physiques. Just like women, men have long padded and cinched themselves to achieve a desired look. Use of embellishment, animal skin, floral patterns and color are on display and the future of men's fashion is considered with looks from cutting edge designers Rei Kawakubo, Rick Owens and Ahmed Abdelrahman.
When asked what she hoped museum-goers would take away from the exhibit, Spilker spoke from her curator's perspective. "The question is, where is menswear going? Will it become more adventurous? Men are beginning to break out of their shells. We want people to realize that menswear has always been interesting and will continue to be interesting."
She says that fashion is a new way for men to excel — another chance to be adventurous with their personal sense of style. "Ever since the beginning of the 19th century the mark of the successful businessman was a beautifully tailored dark blue coat and dark pants. It was the wife in silks and satins who showed off his wealth," Spilker explained. Now, "if men want to take time to put something interesting together, well, women have been doing that for years — they can do it! They're allowed!"
"Reigning Men:Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015 on view at LACMA until Aug.21 (it is a specially ticketed exhibit)
Lower photo: Detail of Etro ensemble, 2014. Clothing photos courtesy of LACMA.