From the start, this exhibition makes it clear that menswear is more than just suits. It’s linen shirts with billowing sleeves, it’s spandex binders, it’s jackets embroidered with eggshells and dramatic, corseted gowns. This show explores the European aesthetic traditions and experiments that have defined masculinity, and contested it, from the Renaissance until the present day.
The exhibition is arranged across three rooms, opening with ‘Undressed’. Plasters of classical statues pose on elevated platforms, dominating the display of garments, underwear and photographs. There’s a woven jockstrap from 1947, a transparent Virgil Abloh jacket and Anthony Patrick Manieri’s mesmerising two-minute film of leaping nude bodies, rippling in all of their chubby, hairy elegance. This is probably the closest the exhibition gets to championing body diversity. But then again, fashion itself has a lot to do in that area.
The curation is smart. References to history and contemporary culture are linked effortlessly, for example Albrecht Dürer’s 1534 studies of human proportion are juxtaposed with a deconstructed Action Man doll. The second room, ‘Overdressed’, is a statement of flamboyance, opulence and colour, with incredible embroidered cloaks, intricate Baroque portraits and an Italian restyling of a Chinese dragon court robe. It even has a whole section dedicated to pink, and Harry Styles’s iconic blue velvet Gucci suit.
Where do you, and the hideously uncool clothes that you’re wearing, fit into it all?
The final section, ‘Redressed’, opens with a heavy focus on British textiles: Fair Isle, tweed, tartan and the Burberry check. There’s a bit on twentieth-century subcultures but, arguably, not enough, considering the influence that streetwear has had on the runways of today. Then, it’s time for the suit: and, hell, there are a lot of them. The most exciting part is the display of how contemporary menswear designers have interpreted the suit as their own: Rick Owens’s cheeky zipped bum flap, Jean Paul Gaultier’s sari-inspired get-up and Haider Ackermann’s glistening sequinned ensemble (as worn by Timothée Chalamet on the red carpet for the ‘Dune’ premiere).
At the very end, you’re confronted with a large scale projection of a Quentin Jones film with a piercing soundtrack. Three final garments are displayed: all gowns, all recently worn by celebrated icons of pop culture. But perhaps what’s just as poignant is the colossal mirror that everything’s reflected in, enveloping you in an image of couture and contorting bodies. Where do you, and the hideously uncool clothes that you’re wearing, fit into it all?
At a time when male pop stars are wearing dresses on the cover of Vogue and boys are trending on TikTok for wearing skirts, when more and more designers are sharing gender neutral collections and non-binary drag stars are walking fashion weeks, this exhibition a statement of the times. Menswear is as fluid as we want it to be – so much so that the term itself has become eroded, and maybe even irrelevant.