fashion

'Fashioning Masculinities:' Tracing the history of gender-fluid menswear

Updated 21st March 2022
Gucci Pre-Fall 2019 Men's Tailoring Campaign. Creative Director: Alessandro Michele; Art Director: Christopher Simmonds; Photographer & Director: Harmony Korine
Credit: Harmony Korine/Courtesy of Gucci/Victoria and Albert Museum
'Fashioning Masculinities:' Tracing the history of gender-fluid menswear
Written by Leah Dolan, CNNLondon
Contributors Max Burnell, CNN, Angelica Pursley, CNN
A long cape in a light-catching dusty pink; a floral brocaded silk robe with a cinched waist; a military buff coat decorated with dainty ribbon fastenings -- these are some of the most subversive items featured in the new exhibition "Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear," at London's Victoria and Albert museum (the V&A). But this distinctly feminine menswear isn't the work of today's new-gen fashion designers -- they are historical artifacts from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
"We really want to show people the long history of changing ideas of masculinity," co-curator Rosalind McKever told CNN at the museum's exhibition preview. "(What should menswear look like) feels like such a contemporary question, but this is a much longer story than maybe some people realize."
Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont (1738-1800), in Robes of the Order of the Bath, 1773-1774
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 V&A's subterranean gallery space, "Fashioning Masculinities" focuses on three key aspects of menswear: underwear, extravagant regalia and of course, the suit. While each element flows rhythmically onto the next, this is not your typical journey through history. Instead, contemporary looks by young designers sit alongside their historical references, often blending in seamlessly with the past. A corseted silk dress with full farthingale-style skirt looks straight out of a 16th-century ballroom, when in reality it debuted last September on a London runway during the Edward Crutchley Spring-Summer 2022 show.
Pink, frilly and fun: Why the history of menswear will surprise you
Plaster casts of classical statues such as Apollo Belvedere and Farnese Hermes stand across from a Calvin Klein advertisement, showcasing a near-ancient societal standard: rippling muscles and taut stomachs. But for every exhibition piece that upholds a traditional version of masculinity, there are three more waiting to exaggerate or dismantle the performance of gender altogether. For instance "Tiresias," a video piece by Canadian transgender artist Cassils plays just a few feet from the ivory European statues. In it, an ice sculpture of a classically idealized masculine torso disintegrates with the body heat of Cassils' naked frame pressed against it. Once the ice has melted, the viewer is left with a new image of manhood: a transmasculine body without surgical intervention.
While "Fashioning Masculinities'' centers on menswear, gender fluidity is the bedrock of much of what is on show. It's a school of thought that promotes authentic living (and dressing), says gender-fluid designer Harris Reed, who features in the exhibition. "I've gone into my craft because I didn't want to make another box for what a woman is or a man is, or even for what a non-binary person is," Reed told CNN. "You are creating something for that body, for that being. It's about living without boundaries and without borders."
Ensemble by Edward Crutchley. Spring Summer 2022.
Ensemble 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 complete with large puff-sleeves, a tall ruffled collar and pussy bow created by Reed while he was still a student at London's prestigious fashion school Central Saint Martins. 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 Vogue cover shoot in November 2020.
"Being included in an exhibition like this is quite surreal," he said. "I remember going to a museum as a small kid and not seeing any representation of myself whatsoever. So it's quite an emotional thing coming here today and really seeing everything together."
"We're seeing such creativity, excitement and diversity in the menswear industry," said McKever, "but also a shift within the fashion industry to thinking differently about gender."
"Fashion is one of the easiest things to push the conversation forward around gender, around queer identity, around self-expression," agreed Reed. "It starts 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 until November 6, 2022.