The Art of Menswear Victoria & Albert Museum
March 19 to November 6, 2022
VIRGINIA WOOLF, author of the gender-bending mythical biography Orlando, would have delighted in Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, a comprehensive exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum—and its accompanying catalog—which deliberates upon the sartorial representations of masculinity through the ages. On the topic of fashion Orlando remarks: “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” Rosalind McKever and Claire Wilcox, the exhibition curators and book editors, survey paradigms of masculine fashion and maintain the centrality of clothing as a signifier of class, culture, gender, political ideology, and race.
The image selection for the cover of the catalog, a recent self-portrait by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, captures some of the exhibit’s themes. The photograph is a re-imagining of a late 18th-century painting by the French romanticist Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, of a portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, a formerly enslaved person from Saint-Domingue who gained his freedom and fought in both the American War of Independence and the Haitian Revolution. Diop juxtaposes the contemporary with the historical using costume, props, and poses, such as depicting Belley in a parliamentary uniform with a modern football under his arm, which is a reference to the racist mistreatment of African footballers by Europeans (Figure 1). The exhibit also uses performance videos such as Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, a rendering of Pas de Quatre, a 19th-century traditional ballet with all-male dancers costumed in men’s underwear. Changing cultural contexts are explored in two paintings that hit the viewer with competing flares of pink-puffery and moiré satin extravagance, first in a painting by Joshua Reynolds titled Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont (1738-1800), next in a face-to-face encounter with designer Harris Reed’s portrait Fluid Romanticism (Figure 2).
Divided into three main galleries, “Undressed,” “Overdressed,” and “Redressed,” the exhibition spans the centuries with wide-ranging displays from classical sculptures, Renaissance paintings, and 17th-century military body armor, to 20th-century underwear, T-shirts and jock straps, and a 21st-century velvet tuxedo gown by designer Christian Siriano worn by Billy Porter on the red carpet of the Academy Awards in 2019.