‘Fashioning Masculinities:’ Tracing the history of gendered men’s fashion

Written by Leah Dolan, CNNLondon

contributors Max Burnell, CNN, Angelica Pursley, CNN

A long cloak in a flashy dusty pink; a floral silk brocade coat with a gathered waist; a buff military coat adorned with dainty bow ties – these are some of the most subversive items featured in the new Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). But this decidedly feminine menswear is not the work of today’s new generation of fashion designers – they are historical artifacts from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

“We really want to show people the long history of changing notions of masculinity,” co-curator Rosalind McKever told CNN at the museum’s exhibit preview. “(What should menswear look like) feels like such a contemporary question, but this is a much longer story than some people might realize.”

Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont (1738-1800), in Robes of the Order of the Bath, 1773-1774 Credit: © National Gallery of Ireland/Victoria and Albert Museum

Located in the underground gallery spaces of the V&A, Fashioning Masculinities focuses on three key aspects of menswear: underwear, extravagant regalia and of course the suit. As each element flows rhythmically into the next, this is not a typical journey through history. Instead, contemporary looks by young designers stand alongside their historical references and often blend seamlessly into the past. A full-skirt, corseted, Farthingale-style silk dress looks straight out of a 16th-century ballroom, when in reality it made its debut on a London catwalk during the Edward Crutchley Spring-Summer 2022 show last September.

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Plaster casts of classical statues like Apollo Belvedere and Farnese Hermes stand opposite a Calvin Klein advertisement and display an almost ancient social standard: muscular muscles and taut bellies. But for every exhibit that upholds a traditional version of masculinity, there are three more waiting to exaggerate or dismantle the representation of gender altogether. For example, Tiresias, a video work by Canadian transgender artist Cassils, is set just meters from the European ivory statues. In it, an ice sculpture of a classically idealized male torso disintegrates when the body heat from Cassils’s naked body is pressed against it. When the ice has melted, the viewer is left with a new image of masculinity: a transmasculine body without surgery.

While Fashioning Masculinities focuses on menswear, gender fluidity is the foundation of many exhibits. It’s a school of thought that encourages authentic living (and clothing), says gender fluid designer Harris Reed, who features in the exhibition. “I got into my craft because I didn’t want to make another box of what is a woman or a man, or even what a non-binary person is,” Reed told CNN. “You create something for this body, for this being. It’s about living limitless and without borders.”

Cast by Edward Crutchley.  Spring Summer 2022.

Cast by Edward Crutchley. Spring Summer 2022. Credit: ©Chris Yates/Courtesy of Edward Crutchley/Victoria and Albert Museum

Included in the exhibition is a metallic fuchsia ensemble with large puffed sleeves, a high ruffled collar and a bow that Reed created while he was still a student at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins fashion school. It became the blueprint for a custom design Harry Styles would wear on his 2017-18 world tour, and catapulted Reed into the spotlight overnight. Years later, he designed a suit dress for Styles in his landmark November 2020 Vogue cover shoot.

“Being included in an exhibition like this is pretty surreal,” he said. “I remember going to a museum when I was a little kid and not seeing any depiction of me at all. So it’s quite emotional to come here today and really see everything together.”

“We’re seeing such creativity, excitement and diversity in the menswear industry,” McKever said, “but also a shift in the fashion industry towards a different way of thinking about gender.”

“Fashion is one of the easiest things to move forward with the conversation about gender, queer identity and self-expression,” agreed Reed. “It’s starting to change the way we interact with each other and how we grow as a society.”

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear is open from March 19 to November 6, 2022.

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