“A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life,” wrote Oscar Wilde, and the V&A’s latest exhibition Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear gives us some cause to believe that’s true.
The showcase marks the V&A’s first major exhibition focusing on menswear, setting itself a rather daunting task. The result is an expansive and impressive celebration of men’s fashion through the ages, from classical Greece to Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Presented over three rooms – Undressed, a study of the male form; Overdressed, a celebration of peacocking and decadence; and Redressed, a tracing of the suit’s origins and various reimaginings – Fashioning Masculinities boasts treasures at every turn, from 17th century carved wooden ‘lace’ cravats to contemporary Gucci couture donned by the likes of Harry Styles, but ends up a little overwhelmed by the sheer size of its remit.
Fashioning Masculinities is at its best when it’s able to inject life into objects. The opening room, for instance, which looks at the male form and underwear, is dominated by a strapping cast of Michelangelo’s David paired with what is essentially a plaster fig leaf strap-on, commissioned by a horror-stricken Queen Victoria when confronted with the statue’s nether regions.
The curators also probe the more serious side of fashion, such as how it can be radical in exploring gender and sexuality. The grand finale is a showcase of three contemporary gender-bending moments featuring Billy Porter’s Oscar’s tuxedo gown set against a specially commissioned Quentin Jones directed film that skillfully unpicks masculinity at the seams.
But moments like this serve to underline the exhibition’s more lifeless elements. “Do clothes make the man?” is the first question that Fashioning Masculinities asks, and yet the men (and women) who wore and made these clothes feel largely absent. Icons such as Oscar Wilde and David Bowie are given respectful nods, but the absence of their personalities may leave you in agreement with fellow queer fashion icon George Michael, that “Sometimes the clothes do not make the man”.
Ultimately, Fashioning Masculinities invites you to revel in the beauty of men’s fashion, and in this it succeeds. While it would benefit from a narrower focus, its scope shows that men’s fashion can be just as playful and charged as women’s. If it can open the door to further showcases on how dress and art have not only fashioned masculinity, but fashioned the man, even better.