An exhibition about clothing opens in a room of statues notable for not wearing any clothing whatsoever, and a giant fig leaf created to save Victorian ladies the sight of a pre-Adam vision of mankind.
This is the V&A’s big look at men’s clothing, an often overlooked aspect of fashion with its obsession with the female form, and commercial clothes shops that often relegate the men’s section to the farthest reaches of the store. Yet, as the exhibition shows, men were once dressed more flamboyantly than a peacock, and we menfolk are still shaking off the legacy of when everything when dark in Victorian times.
As the famous saying goes, clothes maketh the man, so the exhibition starts by digging underneath to the underwear, from Victorian clothes looking not unlike tents to hide the man to the surge in adverts for underwear often shot in moody black and white, and apt for satire by a beer company.
Colour is delivered with early court paintings of men in tights and big jackets – the Elizabethan precursor of today’s “lads in jeans” meme if only they knew it. Pink gets a look in, from the time before pink was associated with femininity, mainly as it was another of those expensive colours to make so only men could afford it.
Pink is making a bit of a comeback, from men’s shirts to wider floral prints. That said, had I not read the label, I would have wondered why a ladies suit is in the display, but it’s for a man.
One of the reasons, as the exhibition explains, that men got the fancy clothes is that bright coloured dyes were very expensive before the invention of synthetics, so a lot of the early part of the exhibition focuses on the gaudy clad pre-Victorian era when no man of note would be seen wearing less than a dozen colours.
The oddity is that although the invention of artificial colourings made it possible for poorer people to buy brightly coloured clothes, Victorian fashions flipped around entirely. A bit like an early Ford motor car, men’s clothing came in any colour you wanted, so long as it was black.
Edwardian tweed takes over, then punk and streetwear, and the office jack evolves from a hunting jacket to dinner, to dining, and now office.
Gender-bending is here, from the museum’s much-touted and doubtless likely to lure people in, display of Harry Styles dress when he was photographed by Vogue, to photos of Marlene Dietrich in a top hat and tales, and even one of the old paintings of a courtly gentleman turns out to be a lady in drag.
Fashion designers pushing fashions boundaries for what men can wear in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II may be surprised to learn that their outfits wouldn’t even have raised an eyebrow in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.
An exhibition that seeks to show off men’s fashions ranging over a roughly 400-year time frame will not be able to go into depth about the hows and whys of what changed and when. Frankly, you could probably fill an entire exhibition talking about the topic of each individual display case. As a display it’s a snapshot, a brief glimpse into frozen moments in time, and very much English in tone, there’s little from elsewhere in the display.
That said, while a bit lacking in depth, it’s a good presentation of how fashions have changed over the centuries and insights into why some of those changes took place.
When men’s work fashions have been shaken up dramatically by the pandemic, with so many people used to working in suits often appearing on work from home zoom calls in slacks and casuals, to the point that the Office of National Statistics has dropped the men’s office suit from its inflation calculator, the exhibition is though unexpectedly timely.