Suits and swagger

Men's fashion, long in the shadow of women's couture, is finally in the spotlight. Photo by Thinkstock.

In summary: 
  • The largest ever exhibition of menswear will showcase three centuries of male fashion
  • Some of the highlights include wigs allegedly made from guillotine victims’ hair and tri-colour waistcoats
  • UTS Professor Peter McNeil is the author of the catalogue for the exhibition being held at the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum in 2016

Just imagine a woven tri-colour waistcoat, embroidered with political slogans, a bi-cornered hat with a cockade (a circular badge of ribbons) and a wooden club called a “gourdin” used to smash republican monuments and beat up people.

These are some of the very rare accessories and clothes of the counter revolutionaries in France, the “Jeunesse Dorée” or “Muscadins”; street gangs who roamed 18th century Parisian avenues and alleyways. Some Muscadins also sported wigs made of human hair, allegedly from guillotine victims and long flared trousers instead of breeches, like sailors.

“These ultra-fashionable men of the late 1780s - 1790s wore three and four waistcoats simultaneously, sets of buttons were changed every day, several collars overlapped each other, multiple watches and seals jangled from either side of the waist,” says Professor Peter McNeil, the dean of research at UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building.

Many of these items will be on show in a new exhibition of menswear, the largest ever assembled, being organised at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for 2016. Professor McNeil has been invited to write the catalogue for the exhibition.

Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715 - 2015 will celebrate men’s fashion over the past three centuries up to the present day and will contain male-only items sourced from the museum’s collection of 25,000 textile pieces and accessories.

“The exhibition will dispel some myths that men’s fashion is boring and uncomfortable to wear,” says Professor McNeil. “Some of it is gorgeously colourful and items will include amazingly detailed waistcoats and suits that have a beautiful cut and are shaped around the man.”

Some of the clothing on display will not have been seen in public for decades, if not hundreds of years.

'Macaroni' jacket worn by the trend-setting young men of the 1760s and 1770s. Photo courtesy LACMA.

“There is a green 'macaroni' jacket as worn by the fops (trend-setting young men) of the 1760s and 1770s; Joseph Banks was one as a youth. There is also an amazing suit with built-in stockings made of pleated cotton, an all-in-one piece protecting the wearer from insects, from the eighteenth century in the West Indies, so the man looked fashionable,” Professor McNeil says.

Many other exhibits have a shared history. They originate from LACMA’s special acquisition of 500 men’s, women’s and children’s garments and accessories, amassed over five decades by two renowned collectors, Martin Kamer and Wolfgang Ruf. 

LACMA discovered one dealer was selling all these pieces together in a single lot in Switzerland, so it used almost $US10 million of donations to snap them up. And it paid off almost immediately, catapulting LACMA’s fashion collection into the ranks of the most coveted in the US.

It’s a varied and fascinating collection, says Professor McNeil. “There are 19th century smoking jackets in almost psychedelic colours of hot purple and red stripes,” he says. “Then there are rare WWII boiler and trench suits in perfect condition from a bomb shelter, and other items such as geometric art-deco woollen bathing costumes, in one piece for men.”

The Reigning Men exhibition will also include contemporary menswear, such as pieces from LA designer Libertine, who uses recycled fur and creates suits made of ties, as well as Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck (recently featured in an exhibition at RMIT’s Design Hub in Melbourne) who constructs men’s clothes with swathes of colourful – and sometimes clashing - textiles.

The LACMA exhibition comes at a time when men’s fashion is the fastest growing sector of the industry, says Ben Smith, a fashion consultant who previously worked at classic Australian men’s label Fletcher Jones.

“More men are taking an interest in fashion,” says Smith, who was a 2001 UTS design graduate and used to have his own label “Anon”. “There’s a new generation who don’t want to be sloppy and casual. This new trend is the antithesis of what came before; a swing back towards more style and sophistication. It’s influenced by Italian men’s style; blazer and shirt, sockless shoes, all with dressed-up ease.”