“Shaping Manhood:” Tracing the History of Gender Fluid Menswear

written by Leah Dolan, CNNLondon

contributors Max Burnell, CNN, Angelica Pursley, CNN

Long robe in light pink. A silk robe embellished with flowers with a cinched waist; Orange military coat with elegant strapping – these are some of the more subversive items featured in the new exhibition “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear”, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A). But these distinctly feminine menswear isn’t the work of today’s new generation fashion designers—they’re historical artifacts from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

“We really want to show people the long history of changing ideas of masculinity,” Rosalind McIver, the exhibition’s co-curator, told CNN in a preview of the exhibition at the museum. “(What menswear should look like) sounds like a contemporary question, but that’s a much longer story than some people might realize.”

Portrait of Charles Cote, 1st Earl of Belamont (1738-1800), in robe of the Order of the Bath, 1773-1774

Portrait of Charles Cote, 1st Earl of Belamont (1738-1800), in robe of the Order of the Bath, 1773-1774 credit: © National Gallery of Ireland / Victoria and Albert Museum

Located in the underground V&A gallery space, Fashioning Masculinities focuses on three main aspects of menswear: lingerie, luxury formal wear and of course the suit. While each element flows rhythmically to the next, this is not your typical journey through history. Instead, the young designers’ contemporary looks sit alongside their historical references, often blending seamlessly into the past. The strappy silk dress with a pleated full skirt looks off a 16th-century ballroom, when in fact last September it appeared on a London runway during Edward Crutchley’s Spring-Summer 2022 show.

Edward Crutchley Band.  Spring and summer 2022.

Edward Crutchley Band. Spring and summer 2022. credit: © Chris Yates / Courtesy of Edward Crutchley / Victoria and Albert Museum

Stucco moldings of classic statues such as Apollo Belvedere and Farnese Hermes stand across from a Calvin Klein ad, displaying a semi-archaic societal norm: rippling muscles and a taut stomach. But for every show piece that upholds a traditional version of masculinity, three more are waiting to exaggerate or completely deconstruct the performance of sex. For example “Tiresias” video clip by Canadian transgender artist Cassells He plays just a few feet from European ivory statues. In it, an ice sculpture of a classic quintessential masculine torso disintegrates with the body heat of a bare Cassells tire pressed against it. Once the ice melts, the viewer is left with a new image of masculinity: a fleeting, non-invasive body of memories.

While “Fashioning Masculinities” focuses on menswear, gender fluidity is the bedrock of many of the exhibits. It’s a school of thought that promotes authentic living (and clothing), says Sexual Fluid designer Harris Reid, who appears on the show. bilateral”. For this body, for this object. It is about living without borders and without borders.”

Harry Styles at Gucci Menswear's Pre-Fall 2019 campaign. Creative Director: Alessandro Michele;  Technical Director: Christopher Symonds;  Photographer and Director: Harmony Korine.

Harry Styles at Gucci Menswear’s Pre-Fall 2019 campaign. Creative Director: Alessandro Michele; Technical Director: Christopher Symonds; Photographer and Director: Harmony Korine. credit: Harmony Korine / Courtesy of Gucci / Victoria and Albert Museum

The gallery includes a metallic fuchsia ensemble complete with large puffed sleeves, a long ruffled collar and a pussy bow that Red made while still a student at the prestigious London School of Fashion at Central Saint Martins. It became the blueprint for a custom design that Harry Styles would wear on his 2017-18 world tour, and it threw Reid into the spotlight overnight. Years later, he designed a suit for his mentor’s Styles Vogue cover filmed in November 2020.

“To be included in an exhibition like this is absolutely surreal,” he said. “I remember going to the museum when I was a little kid and never seeing any representation of myself. So it’s quite emotional to come here today and really see it all together.”

“We’re seeing such creativity, excitement, and diversity in the menswear industry, but also a shift in the fashion industry to think differently about gender,” McIver said.

Reed agrees, “Fashion is one of the easiest things to move the conversation forward about sex, gay identity, and self-expression.” “It begins to change the way we interact with each other, and how we grow as a community.”

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear is open from March 19 to November 6, 2022.

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