Menswear is more than just a fig leaf.

Menswear is more than just a fig leaf.


Menswear has played a rich role in the story of fashion, which tends to focus primarily on womenswear.

The Reigning Men exhibition recently held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, spans 300 years of fashionable men’s dress, seeking to correct the historical imbalance of thought that only females were and are interested in fashion.

The display of outstanding menswear is organized into five themes:
Body Consciousness
The Splendid Man.

In putting this exhibition together, items were drawn from the permanent collection of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), with additional material from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). Reigning Men makes connections between history and high fashion and traces a range of cultural influences over the centuries. As a display, it celebrates a rich history of restraint and resplendence in menswear.

Revolution/Evolution menswear style
The fashionable man has always been a part of society, constantly reinventing himself and often borrowing from his forefathers. From the militants of the French Revolution to the anti-fashion of punk, and from dandies to aesthetes and hippies, there has been a revolution in dress and style that mirrors some shifts in our society.

For example, during the final period of the French Revolution, gangs of young men roamed the streets of Paris wearing tight, extravagantly cut tail coats and cropped pantaloons, often with conspicuously striped fabrics. These incroyables, “incredible ones”, were fashion extremists whose outrageous appearance which was so different from their forefathers, reflected the instability of their time. Centuries later, Walter Van Beirendonck appropriated the look, eclipsing its excesses with a pair of skin-tight leather trousers and a superbly tailored, orange frock coat. The ensemble in the display is completed with a gaudy tie and shirt, featuring huge collars and cuffs, made of bed sheeting instead of fine linens.

The Macaroni style
Many style transformations have been led by men who consciously used clothing to express their individuality and ideals. The notably ostentatious suits of the fashionable man known as the Macaroni set him apart from other men in 1770s Britain. Beyond that, the Macaroni was the forerunner of countless trends and innovations to come.

Influenced by continental styles, the Macaroni was named after the Italian pasta dish enjoyed by well-to-do young Englishmen on the “Grand Tour” of the European continent. These young men dressed to assert a cosmopolitan outlook. At a time when British men wore looser silhouettes, such as the silk velvet suit which was on display with a long, full-skirted coat, the Macaroni wore ensembles noticeable for their bright colours and slim cuts. One mismatched Macaroni-style suit in the display, comprised a shorter, tight fitting green coat with high collar and breeches with orange waistcoat, and an exaggerated wig and accessories. It resembled a hand-colored caricature of “The Macaroni Bricklayer”. See the image Matthew and Mary Darly caricature, “The Macaroni Bricklayer”, 1780s.

The Carmagnole Jacket, France, c. 1790, wool plain weave, full finish.
Revolutionaries called san-culottes – literally, “without knee breeches” – wore loose-fitting, coarse cotton trousers of the laboring classes, in contrast to the impractical breeches worn by the aristocracy. These pantaloons were often made of striped material and worn with short woolen jackets known as carmagnoles. The jacket was named after Carmagnola, an Italian town where the garment was associated with the peasantry. Drastically different from the fashion of the wealthy, the humble trouser (pantaloon) and jacket would eventually be adopted by everyday menswear.  For example: Sans-culotte Trousers, France, c. 1790, cotton plain weave.

Duvert ensemble
This ensemble of menswear was worn particularly in France, and especially active in the 19th century.
Top Hat, c. 1815, silk plush.
Tail Coat, United States of America, c. 1820, wool plain weave, full finish, and silk velvet.
Pantaloon-trousers, United States of America, 1820s, silk crepe.
Waistcoat, England, 1820s, silk plain weave with silk supplementary weft-patterning, printed.

The Oxford Bags ensemble
Following World War One, the emergence of looser garment silhouettes reflected the growing popularity of athletics. Young men increasingly adopted a sports-inspired clothing for casual dress, such as the baggy “plus-fours” knickers. As the trend for sportwear grew, so did the fad for the wide-legged trousers. In fact, the Oxford bags often featured pant legs that reach circumferences of up to 32 inches. Today, the roomy pant leg continues to be re-imagined by contemporary menswear designers, such as Raf Simons.

The Oxford Bags ensemble, United States of America, c. 1928.
This was often worn by young men in fashionable Oxford bags, c. 1925. The style of clothing included:
Trousers (Oxford Bags), wool twill.
Sweater, wool knit.
Shirt with collar, cotton plain weave.
Bow tie, wool plain weave, printed.
Cap, wool twill.
Shoes, leather.

The Moon at Noon dinner suit, (1928) is an example of a dinner suit which is mandatory for a gentleman mixing in high society. The ensemble consists of:
Jacket, wool twill.
Trousers, wool twill with silk satin trim.
Manufactured by Costume Cordella, Italy, 1908-90 for Maison Cordella, Italy, founded 1783.

The Italian Silhouette from the late 1920s is the predecessor of the popular continental look of the mid-20th century. It is characterized by its sharp shoulder line, narrow hips, and tapered pant legs. An example is the way that Cosimo Cordella blends this traditional Italian shape with bold, monochromatic, color-blocking, similar to the dynamic contrasting shapes associated with modernism. The effect it creates is an elegant, fashion-forward look. (Garments provided by Maison Cordella).

Oxford (UK University) baggy ensemble, (c. 1930-55) is an example of the style of menswear worn at universities in Britain in the 1935-50s. The type of clothing included:
Suit with Plus-Four Knickers, c. 1950, wool twill, Ropers’ Limited, England (active 20th century).
Sweater Vest, c. 1935, England, wool knit (Fair Isle pattern).
Necktie (bowtie), c. 1935, England, plain wool weave.
Shoes (Oxfords), c. 1930, Colby Stuart Limited, England, (active 20th century), leather.
(Garments provided by the Costume and Textiles Deaccession Fund).

Letterman (USA varsity) ensemble, (c. 1950s) is an example of the style of menswear worn on campus at universities on the East Coast of America in the 1950s.
Letterman jacket, c. 1955, wool twill, full finish, and wool knit with wool-machine embroidered patch, Harley Davidson Sporting Goods Company, United States of America, founded 1903.
(Garment provided by the Costume Council Fund).
Jeans, c. 1953, cotton twill (denim), Levi Strauss, United States of America, founded 1853.
Shoes (Athletic), c. 1955, cotton plain weave (canvas) and rubber, Levi Strauss, United States of America, founded 1853.
(Garments provided by the Costume and Textiles Acquisition Fund).

The practice of awarding athletic achievement with large letters to display on students’ uniform sweaters began at Harvard University in 1865. By 1930, wool jackets replaced the sweater, and the letterman (or varsity) jacket was born. This symbol of social clout peaked in 1950s high schools when the letterman was paired with denim jeans and canvas sneakers, becoming the unofficial uniform for model student athletes. Today, this trend of signifying membership in an exclusive group has permeated the fashion world. A suit by Johnson Hartig for Libertine of striped silk fabrics is similarly emboldened with embroidered patches carrying the label’s name.

The Dandy style: Unlike youth fashions, the elegant clothing of the Dandy is understated, with careful attention to detail and construction. Restrained, refined looks are the consummate mark of the Dandy and his various iterations. They range from the innovative tail coats of the early 1800s all the way to the slim suits of today’s well-dressed man.

The Huntsman style: Since the mid-19th century, the London tailors at Savile Row’s H. Huntsman & Sons have measured, cut, fit, and pressed custom bespoke suits by hand to create refined silhouettes. Such suits require more than 80 hours to construct and at least three fittings to perfect.  The actor and style icon Gregory Peck was a consummate client of Huntsman for almost half a century. His 1954 grey flannel suit exemplifies Huntsman’s subtle sophistication and dedication to quality workmanship. #

The Huntsman ensemble (1954) is an example of the new style of menswear in the 1950s. For example:
Hat (Fedora) 1954, wool felt with silk grosgrain-ribbon trim, Scotts, England, founded 1870s.
Suit, 1954, wool twill, H. Huntsman & Sons, England, founded 1849.
Shoes, 1954, suede, John Lobb Bootmaker, England, founded 1866.
(Garments loaned by Anthony Peck).

The Hippy Man style: The American men experimented with colour, pattern, and self-expression through their clothing in the 1960s, as the civil rights and anti-war movements contributed to the rejection of traditional menswear. Hippies adopted flamboyant anti-fashions that favoured regional techniques, such as the batik patchwork shirt and natural materials. For example:
Shirt, India for the United States market, c. 1969 made of cotton plain weave, wax-resist dyed (batik) patchwork.
Trousers, leather c. 1967-69 by the East West Musical Instruments Company, United States of America, founded in 1967.
The leather bell-bottoms were made by San Francisco-based East West Musical Instruments Company, which originally produced stringed leather instruments before creating garments.

The UK Mod style: The first mods (short for modernists), originated in the late 1950s in London’s beatnik/modern jazz scene; soon, the term was used broadly to denote the styles and culture of Swinging London. One fashion center during this period was Portobello Road, where I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet married pop art with nostalgia. This shop was known for specializing in vintage military wear and military-inspired garments, including this Union Jack shirt. For example:
Shirt, c. 1966-67, England, I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, cotton plain weave, printed.
Trousers, 1967-68, United States of America, Bill Blass (1922-2002), cotton plain weave, printed. Trousers manufactured for Pincus Brothers Maxwell (PBM) (1911-2004), United States of America. (The shirt and trousers are a gift of Thomas Anthony Buckley).

A Spring/Summer 2014 ensemble by Ann Demeulemeester, Belgium, born 1959 featured wildly coloured clothing. This contemporary designer’s red, white, and black design evokes a similar sense of rebellion. Known for her deconstructive style with gothic and punk undertones, Ms Demeulemeester accomplishes this striking look through the layers and bold vertical stripes originally associated with fashions from the French Revolution.

Text copyright Fiona Rothchilds, LACMAS, MAAS and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney 2018.
Photographs of exhibition items copyright Fiona Rothchilds 2018.
Uploaded 22 November 2018

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