What does it mean to look like a man?
Charles Coote was a thug. According to Rosalind McKever, co-curator of a large and provocative new exhibition on men’s fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Coote, the first Earl of Bellamont, was “not a very nice man…which only goes ‘add to the irony of how he’s viewed now.” That’s a verdict delivered by McKever with chilling understatement and a pointedly raised eyebrow.
The potted biography offered by the National Gallery of Ireland, owner of Coote’s most famous portrait, is less euphemistic, more damning. “The Earl of Bellamont was a conceited and pompous womanizer who forsook his wife…and in his will acknowledged six illegitimate children by four different mothers. A further shadow is cast by our own National Gallery: “His appointment in as a Knight of the Bath in 1764 and his elevation to Earldom in 1767 had more to do with political expediency than real achievement.”
May be. And yet, as immortalized in the famous painting by Joshua Reynolds (1773-1774), who will travel from Dublin to London this spring to Shaping Masculinities: The Art of Men’s Fashion, this carefree Georgian fop had one redeeming feature, at least for those of us who care about such things: the Earl was quite the style icon. In fact, he could have gotten a peacock to reconsider its dull plumage and decide, in consultation with its tailor, to opt for something a little bolder the next time around.
In Reynolds’ painting, Coote is depicted casually leaning on his sword, his voluminous crimson cape (now faded to pink) draped carelessly over his shoulders as he gazes impassively into the distance, perhaps contemplating his next purchase on MatchesFashion. On his head is the billowing ostrich-feathered hat of the Order of the Bath. On his shod feet, golden shoes adorned with rosettes and, because rosettes alone are never enough, spurs. It’s, to use a phrase beloved of today’s Insta-popular fashion plates, lecherous seriousness.
“It’s so extraordinarily campy,” McKever says of Reynolds’ painting. We watch it, on a cool November morning, projected onto a screen set up at one end of the splendid V&A Conference Room, presided over by a contrasting portrait of Victoria herself, the dark Queen, in her widowed black striking with Coote’s outrageous styles. “In Ireland, when the National Gallery has their Pride events,” says McKever, “that’s the image they use.”
Almost 250 years after his death, then, the womanizer Coote is still alive, but not in the way he might have imagined. Rather than the macho swordsman he and Reynolds might have hoped to project, a vision of patriarchal power, the painting, seen through 21st century eyes, made the Earl a symbol of gender fluidity, an LGBTQ+ standard bearer. unlikely, and an inspiration for a new generation of fashion designers. The National Gallery of Ireland again: “Coote’s nonchalant stance and flamboyant dresses present him, in a modern context, as a stereotypical camp homosexual.”
McKever, an expert in European painting and sculpture, recently reviewed Reynolds’ portrait of Coote with young London designer Harris Reed, whose romantic, swooning experiments in non-binary clothing are worn by pop stars Harry Styles, Olly Alexander and Solange. . They stood together, too, in front of another remarkable portrait of another lavishly padded 18th-century clothes horse: Jean-Baptiste Perronneau’s painting of Jacques Cazotte, author of The devil in love, winemaker, collector and counter-revolutionary, who lost his head at the guillotine in 1792. It was alongside Perronneau that a striking pink ensemble by Reed, also inspired by 18th century courtiers and 70s glam rock, will be featured when the exhibition opens in March. This juxtaposition of new and old, of image and object, will be repeated throughout the exhibition, which includes classical sculptures, Renaissance paintings, films and photographs, as well as clothing from several previous blockbusters, including Alexander McQueen: wild beautyand Frida Kahlo: Make up.
The V&A has held menswear shows before, Wilcox says, although “never on the scale of this one. But the timing seems good. Not only is there a resurgence of interest, and not only is the menswear industry growing tremendously, and not only is it economically significant, but there has been a great resurgence of creativity in fashion contemporary masculine.
The reasons for this, Wilcox suggests, are many. “I think fashion always responds to social change,” she says. “Clothes reveal our hopes and aspirations, but also our vulnerabilities. Young designers, in particular, are now showcasing new versions of masculinity. It could be helped by internet; it could be the fact that the world is more connected, more global, so there are more opportunities for diversity.
Fashion, Wilcox and McKever concede, is cyclical. Men’s fashion is prone to occasional paroxysms of ostentation, as in the fabulous and groovy 1960s and 1970s. These are usually followed by backsliding retreats into rigid propriety, as evidenced by the power suit of the 1980s The transition from fancy dress costume to out-of-the-box uniform and back again is repeated throughout history.
McKever: “What we’re trying to cling to is why is it [resurgence in flamboyance] is happening now, when else has it happened, and what can we learn from these shifts and changes? We ask: ‘How is masculinity realized through clothing?’
“It’s a big topic, menswear,” says Wilcox. “And as we go through centuries, we don’t try to do everything. This is not an investigative show. What we are trying to do is to propose an investigation, to open the debate.
shaping masculinity is divided into three discreet galleries: “Underdressed”, “Overdressed” and “Reddressed”. The first explores bodies under clothing and how fashion has shaped and been shaped by the changing tastes of the ideal male physique. “Examples of the perfect male body are present in every museum,” says McKever, as we look at images of classical sculpture, in which the naked male form is often draped or wrapped in fabric. “But within that you get a range of idealized bodies, from the really overmuscled Hercules to the much more agile Adonis.”
“I think what we’re saying,” says Wilcox, “is that the body, as well as the clothes that wear it, are subject to fashion.” Anyone who’s seen a personal trainer in skinny jeans knows she’s onto something here. Fortunately, there is no such image, to my knowledge, in Shaping masculinities. Instead, visitors to the Underdressed space will be treated to depictions of the undressed man, from Michelangelo to Calvin Klein.
Overdressed is where, in a riot of color and drama, velvet and silk, visitors to the exhibition will meet luxury buyers of eras past and present, from the Earl of Bellamont to the creations of the current designer. American menswear designer Thom Browne, Nigerian designer Orange Culture, and our very own Priya Ahluwalia.
Redressed, a contrast in austere monochrome, picks up on Brummell’s heritage: costume, in all its variety, from Edwardian frock coats to Teddy boys, from Duke of Windsor tartans to a recent Burberry design for Marcus Rashford, not forgetting Marlene Dietrich in Anderson & Sheppard and Sam Smith at Hermès.
“The suit,” says Wilcox, definitely, “is not boring. It is extraordinary in its variety. Adolf Loos said that the suit was the quintessential modern garment. It is such a beautiful and flexible thing.
And men who wear suits, I’m sure, aren’t (not necessarily) boring men. Beau Brummell’s dandyism, says McKever, had less to do with flamboyance than with “interest.”
If the dominant expression of masculinity throughout history, a conception of what it is to be a man as narrow as a mod lapel, has so often been about strength, power and pragmatism chilling, there has also always been a counter-narrative of vulnerability, beauty and romance, and the display of these. “Sometimes the modes of expression are subtle,” says McKever. “It may be the quality of the fabric, the shape, the buttons, the cuffs: these little details that you have to look for, but they are there.”
Wilcox points to a description, in Ian Kelly’s masterful biography of Brummell, of the gloves of the old rake. “They were made of pigskin so thin it was transparent so you could see his fingers. There’s also something so visceral about it. It’s very physical. »
Starting with a discussion of the history of costume, we move on to the influence of the military uniform on male attire past and present: the trench coat, the bomber jacket, the preponderance of navy in my own wardrobe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I work for a men’s style magazine, I could talk to Wilcox and McKever about this stuff all day.
“Fashion is restless, isn’t it?” said Wilcox. “It’s always moving. Historically, menswear may not have moved as fast as womenswear, but now it is accelerating.
This show offers as good an opportunity as any to try and keep up.
Shaping Masculinities: The Art of Men’s Fashion, in partnership with Gucci, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from March 19 to November 6, 2022; Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL; vam.ac.uk
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