Menswear is more than just a fig leaf.

Menswear is more than just a fig leaf.


That is to say, menswear has played a rich role in the story of fashion, which tends to focus primarily on womenswear.

The Reigning Men exhibition held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, spans 300 years of fashionable men’s dress. As an historical display, it seeks to correct the historical imbalance of thought that only females have an interest 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).

Most importantly, 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. Certainly, there has been a revolution in dress and style that mirrors shifts in our society. By way of example, from the militants of the French Revolution to the anti-fashion of punk, and from dandies to aesthetes and hippies.

For instance, 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”, are fashion extremists whose outrageous appearance which is so different from their forefathers, reflected the instability of their time.

Subsequently, centuries later, Walter Van Beirendonck appropriated the look, eclipsing its excesses with a pair of skin-tight leather trousers. He teamed it with a tailored, orange frock coat. The ensemble in the display is completed with a gaudy tie and shirt. Of particular note, it features huge collars and cuffs, made of bed sheeting instead of fine linens.

The Macaroni style

Many style transformations are led by men who consciously use clothing to express their individuality and ideals. For instance, the notably ostentatious suits of the fashionable man known as the Macaroni sets himself apart from other men in 1770s Britain. Beyond that, the Macaroni is the forerunner of countless trends and innovations to come.

The Macaroni is named after the Italian pasta dish enjoyed by well-to-do young Englishmen on the “Grand Tour” of the European continent. These young men asserted a cosmopolitan outlook, influenced by continental styles.

This was 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. However, 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 resembles a hand-colored caricature of “The Macaroni Bricklayer”. See the image Matthew and Mary Darly caricature, “The Macaroni Bricklayer”, 1780s for further information.

The Carmagnole Jacket

This jacket dates to France, c. 1790, in wool plain weave, with full finish.
Revolutionaries called them san-culottes. This means, literally, “without knee breeches”. They are loose-fitting, coarse cotton trousers worn by servants and the laboring classes.  These pantaloons are often made of striped material and worn with short woolen jackets known as carmagnoles. Certainly, the trousers are in sharp contrast to the breeches worn by the aristocracy.

The jacket is named after Carmagnola, an Italian town where the garment was associated with the peasantry. Therefore, it is drastically different from the fashion of the wealthy. The humble trouser (pantaloon) and jacket were eventually be adopted for 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 sportswear 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

This ensemble from the United States of America (c. 1928) was often worn by young men in fashionable Oxford bags, c. 1925. The style of clothing includes:
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

This dinner suit is date to 1928 and is an example of a dinner suit which is mandatory for a gentleman mixing in high society. The ensemble is:
Jacket, wool twill.
Trousers, wool twill with silk satin trim.
The items are 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. The garments are provided by Maison Cordella.

Oxford (UK University) baggy ensemble

This suit (c. 1930-55) is an example of the style of menswear worn at universities in Britain in the 1935-50s. The type of clothing includes:
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

This outfit (c. 1950s) is a sample of the style of menswear worn on campus at universities on the East Coast of America in the 1950s.  On show is the example: 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.

(The garment is 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.
(The garments provided by the Costume and Textiles Acquisition Fund).

The University gear

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. The letterman is paired with denim jeans and canvas sneakers. It is an unofficial uniform for model student athletes.

Today, this trend of signifying membership in an exclusive group has permeated the fashion world. In addition, 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 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. In particular, Peck’s 1954 grey flannel suit exemplifies Huntsman’s subtle sophistication and dedication to quality workmanship. 

The Huntsman ensemble

This ensemble (c. 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. The hat is made at Scotts, England which was founded 1870s.
Suit, 1954, wool twill, H. Huntsman & Sons, England, founded 1849.
Shoes, 1954, suede, John Lobb Bootmaker, England, founded 1866.
The garments are loaned by Anthony Peck.

The Hippy Man style

The American men experimented with colour, pattern, and self-expression through their clothing in the 1960s. This is the time when the civil rights and anti-war movements contributed to the rejection of traditional menswear.

For instance, hippies adopted flamboyant anti-fashions and favoured regional techniques. In addition, they wore items such as the batik patchwork shirt and natural materials such as silk, linen and cotton.

  • 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 are made by San Francisco-based East West Musical Instruments Company. This business originally produced stringed leather instruments before creating garments.
The UK Mod style

The first mods originated in the late 1950s in London’s beatnik and modern jazz scene. The term ‘mod’ is short for modernists. It is used broadly to denote the styles and culture of Swinging London.

One fashion center during this period was Portobello Road, where the shop I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet married pop art with nostalgia. This shop is known for specializing in vintage military wear and military-inspired garments, including the Union Jack shirt on display in the exhibition.

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.

The trousers are 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

This ensemble designed by Ann Demeulemeester, Belgium (born 1959) featured wildly coloured clothing. Certainly, this contemporary designer’s red, white, and black design evokes a similar sense of rebellion. Above all, the designer is known for her deconstructive style with gothic and punk undertones. Ms Ann Demeulemeester accomplishes this striking look through the layers and bold vertical stripes originally associated with fashions from the French Revolution.

Text copyright Fiona Rothchilds™.  Acknowledgment of 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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