The V&A’s new exhibition Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear Review focused solely on showcasing menswear. A daring task, that successfully resulted in the celebration of men throughout the history of fashion, from the classical period all the way to the 21st century red carpet.
Structured into three parts, the exhibition presented: Undressed, a study of the male form; Overdressed, a celebration of peacocking and decadence; and Redressed, a tracing of the suit’s origins and various reimaginings of fashion icons.
The opening room introduced us to the male form under the classical period. This was highlighted by a strapping cast of Michelangelo’s David paired with a plaster fig leaf strap-on, commissioned by a horror-stricken Queen Victoria after being confronted with the statue’s lower regions. Classical fashion treasures dazzled the view, from 17th century carved wooden ‘lace’ cravats to contemporary Gucci couture donned by Harry Styles.
Moving further into the exhibition, the intersection of fashion with sexuality and gender became more apparent. Iconic gender-bending moments in fashion were on display, such as Billy Porter’s Oscar’s tuxedo gown set against a specially commissioned Quentin Jones-directed film, craftily unpicking masculinity at its seams.
Ultimately, the exhibition was a beautiful and well-documented showcase of men in fashion. It left us ponder over the question: “Do clothes make the man?” There were respectful nods towards the fashion performativity of icons like Oscar Wilde and David Bowie; on the other hand, in the absence of their extraordinary personalities to imbue life in the costumes, perhaps, as fellow queer fashion icon George Michael mused, “Sometimes, the clothes do not make the man”. The open-endedness of the question, as well as that of the exhibition itself, nevertheless evaded such clear-cut, one-sided answers of either, or.
Spurred on to further investigate the multidimensionality of the question“Do clothes make the man?”, I brought it forward to the men in my life who gravitate towards fashion.
Context: Some of my male friends, Nameer and Matt, were brought along to discuss the concepts and questions arisen in the exhibition. For the sake of nuance, I also asked Tee, coming from a more established background in fashion, to join our discussion. All three brought unique thoughts and perceptions to the conversation.
What got you into fashion or interested in clothes?
Matt: My cousins, who were going to fashion school in Canada. They used to style me, and I thought ‘oh, these look kinda sick’, so that’s what got me into clothes and fashion.
Nameer: My insecurity made me want to wear clothes that made me feel good and confident. And those close around me, such as my friends, also dress fashionably, so naturally it inspired me to get into it too.
Tee: As a kid, whenever I got a piece of clothing through my older sibling. Initially, I always wanted to make this my own, so I ended up altering the piece by chopping of sleeves. Another example is, my Dad used to get his clothes tailored, so I benefited from the fabric left over. That lead to me sketching and designing my own clothes at the age of 7 and 8. Growing up, I got many compliments on my clothing; some was quite unique and it would always be commented on. And then later on, I started to realise I could actually have a fashion brand since the stuff I was making for myself, others appreciated too. The hip hop culture was on the rise too, which allowed its affiliated fashion scene to become popular. During this time I was dancing on a show, where I met other young people who started their own fashion brands.
How would you describe your personal style?
Matt: I always try to style my outfit around a unique main piece. But usually use whatever’s in my closet and find unique pieces, that also don’t break the bank.
Nameer: Comfort over anything for me. So I will always wear something that I am comfortable wearing and then work around that.
Tee: I can’t be put in a box, I would wear the classic, three-piece suits. I also love the 60s and 70s fashion trends. At the same time, depending on the environment, I can dress down, up or rugged. I love a streetstyle, “box” silhouette. A lot of traditional looks, wherever it is from Africa, South America or Japan make their way into my outfits. I think I alternate between so many different looks that it would be unfair to limit myself to one style. I just love fashion, and so I love fabrics and garments and the variety of fashion looks, without necessarily putting myself in one box. Unless it is a literal boxy jacket or silhouette :P.
Who or what influences your style?
Matt: A lot of musicians and artists. Such as Tyler and Kaytranada. Some Youtubers too like, Poet and David Vujanic and Rich Brian.
Nameer: I would agree, musicians! Skateboard culture inspires my style. Also friends too, like we all draw inspiration from each other a lot.
Tee: I like Rick Owens, if we’re talking designers. I also Yohji Yamamoto. There are few other Japanese designers that aren’t known, but I like what they are doing. I am afraid, sometimes I don’t even know the brand’s name, I just pick out what I like. As a designer, I love looking at mood boards, other designers inspire my mood board. Everything I wear is mine, and in the last 5 years since I have had my own production, it is rarely that I have worn other clothes. But if I was not a designer, I think the one person I would wear is Rick Owens, he has definitely had some influence over me.
Male or female fashion icons you respect/admire or someone you believe has broken the male stigma around fashion.
Matt: Tyler mainly because of his unique style and the same people I mentioned previously.
Nameer: Jayden Smith and Harry Styles, are definitely some fashion figures who have changed the stigma.
Matt: Some footballers too, like Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tom Davis.
Tee: There are not too many people breaking the stigma, I can appreciate from the business side but as a person overall, not really. I think not many designers are using their influence for humanity or social impact like they could. Making money is cool, but social impact surpasses its importance. A person I would mention is Pharrell, though he is not necessarily a designer, but he uses fashion and mixes it with humanism, which I appreciate.
Did you or are you still facing any stigmas being men that are into fashion – any specific moment that has really stood out?
Matt: I mean, going to a white dominated school where they were all wearing trackies and skinny jeans. But growing up as one of the few Asians in my school, I already grew up naturally tending to wear different clothes from the rest. So there was definitely some ostracization regarding that.
Nameer: 100% For me it was from my culture and family. So even when I wore pink (beanie) for the first time, my Dad would question what I was wearing and even tried taking it away from me. He would say “As a man you are not meant to wear pink”. This included even things like jewellery such as necklaces. Also I would wear clothes that belonged to my mum and sisters, which other family members would get annoyed over.
Another stigma is also second-hand clothing, and many have picked on me for wearing it. Especially going to a private school, I got a lot of comments of “being poor” and other similar comments.
Tee: Yeah, in the sense that fashion has always been seen as feminine or gay. When I was growing up, it was as ridiculous as saying that men can’t wear pink trousers. Like the pants I am wearing, for example - in America, I would have been called gay for wearing them. And there is so much of this nonsense, I think, still exists, but I don’t know if it is because of stigma or mere ignorance. For me, this is an opportunity to showcase that, you don’t have to be gay to be in fashion. I am aware, though, that such stereotypes do exist in peoples’ minds about men in fashion. And there are challenges, in terms of climbing the ladder and disadvantages.
Do you think toxic masculinity is prevalent in the fashion industry?
Nameer: Yeah, definitely, I think it is in every industry. But the fashion industry is one of few actively trying to break down the toxic masculinity.
Matt: I think it’s becoming more and more common for men to be into fashion and grow so it’s getting better for sure.
Tee: Yeah, a little a bit. Things are obviously changing, as there was a time when “to be a man, a real man”, you should only model certain types of clothes. But now through the influence of culture and music in general, some of the stigmas have broken down about men in fashion. To the point where men can be seen as more fashionable than women and are happy investing more (money & time) into fashion to look good. And so it is no longer an issue. But I think, we’re in an evolutionary process where a lot appears to be in constant transformation, and one aspect of this being the relationship between fashion and men. Even make-up, a lot more men are wearing make-up. I think things are changing, it is exciting times, so let’s see.
Photo credits: https://www.instagram.com/w_l_yang/ . From left to right: Matt, Terence, Namer.
Edited by Isabela Palancean, fashion co-editor