Take A Trip Through 300 Years of Men’s Fashion

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a new exhibition highlights 200 styles, from military uniforms to punk jackets

Jeremy Scott (United States, born 1975) for Adidas, Boots, Spring/Summer 2013. (Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
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It’s easy to think that men’s fashion is less exciting than women’s. “Most people’s idea of menswear is the standard business suit in a blue-black-brown palette,” says Sharon Takeda. But a new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) begs to differ. 

Takeda, head of the costume and textiles department, and curators Kaye Spilker and Clarissa Esguerra mostly plumbed the museum’s permanent collection of more than 35,000 objects for notable trends in the past three centuries of men’s fashion. They turned up court dresses for 18th century noblemen, an ultraconservative bathing suit from 1900, and a striped zoot suit, and selected 200 looks to feature in “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015,” opening April 10.

The exhibition offers a far-ranging and eye-opening perspective on how cultural zeitgeists and political climates affect men’s fashion. LACMA’s curators examine how political movements, cultural exchange, uniform styles and desires to manipulate the male figure (think stockings with padded calves and waist-cinching underpants) all influenced the ensembles. Though the exhibition showcases historical clothing styles that draw from Eastern influences and works by contemporary Japanese designers, it primarily focuses on menswear popularized in Europe and the Americas.

“The show features surprising colors, embellishment and silhouette changes in men’s fashion,” says Takeda. “It’s filled with a lot of wonderful stories.” The meticulously assembled exhibition also shows visitors that fashion has always been an outlet for expression and thus an art form in its own right. 

Macaroni Ensemble, 1770

(Suit, Italy, probably Venice, c. 1770; waistcoat, France, c. 1770; sword with sheath, France, late 18th century. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)

The “Macaronis,”of Yankee Doodle fame were upper-class British youth that took a grand tour of Europe, many to France and Italy, in the 18th century.  Supposedly these youths were given their moniker because they had developed a taste for the exotic dishes of Italy, including the pasta.

When they returned home, they often wanted to emulate the vivacious fashion they had seen abroad. Rather than don the typical matching suit of breeches, waistcoats down to the knees and long vests, these fellows created a trimmer look and used mismatched colors. This Macaroni outfit consists of a tea green jacket and breeches with a coral waistcoat, which would often be combined with ornamental swords and jewelry. “They were pushing the limits, as kids do,” says Takeda. 

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