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By Jamie Tomkins

If masculinity is constant, unwavering and stable, then fashion is inherently unmasculine: quarterly shows, resort collections, and a growing fast fashion system that pumps out over 1,000 new looks a day. According to 14th century Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, “clothes make the man”. So, what do our clothes have to say about us?

Taking place over three acts - Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed - the V&A’s new exhibition Fashioning Masculinities examines the extent to which clothes shape our relationship to ourselves and our identity as men.

A far cry from the prevailing (and outdated) hegemonic masculinity that much of the world still subscribes to, Fashioning Masculinities paints a more egalitarian picture - one that isn’t as ‘manly’ as you might think.

Ironically, we’ve almost come full circle. Billy Porter’s iconic 2019 Academy Awards tuxedo dress (on display at the V&A) more closely resembles the togas and tunics of Antiquity than today’s T-shirts and trainers. Yet its message is quite different. Unlike the use of draping to accentuate strength and athleticism in Ancient Greece, Porter’s dress (designed by Christian Siriano) plays between the masculine and feminine. His intention? To be a walking piece of political art and challenge expectations.

Fashion has long been used to subvert and question social mores, but the line between expression and repression isn’t always so clear. Whilst Porter’s dress was an iconic moment for gender-expansive clothing, he acknowledges how stepping outside of the status quo and being received as feminine can be detrimental for work. For the marginalised, fashion can be an outward expression of identity - of rebellion, belonging, and community. But in a cisgendered, heteronormative world this outward expression can be used to stifle and stigmitase the wearer.

Opening the show is an excerpt from Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s Fall/Winter 2020 show notes. It describes masculinity as a dominant and oppressive model that aggressively bans any reference to femininity. It is socially and culturally designed to reject anything that doesn’t comply with it—including those of us that unknowingly uphold it. The oppressed know their oppressors better than the oppressors know themselves. And the cis-het community is largely amiss to the ways fashion constricts its own concept of self. The masculine tropes we mindlessly adhere to offer a rather limited scope for self expression and, by consequence, understanding.

If the fashion we choose to express our masculinity through can change, why can’t our definition of masculinity itself? Much of what we value in mainstream fashion (and masculinity) has evolved over years of changing social tastes. Our idolisation of the hyper-masculine stems from Ancient Greece; impressive hues and expensive fabrics were signs of wealth and status during The Grand Tour; colour was historically the preserve of the powerful. But the meaning of each depended largely on place and date.

Fashion has played a vital role in shaping masculinities but, as the V&A exhibition illustrates, these connotations changed frequently over time. So much so that 18th century painter, Joshua Reynolds, rarely painted dress in detail as he considered fashion too transient. Ironically, the red pigment in the scarlet cape that Charles Coote 1st Earl of Bellamont wore in Reynold’s Roges of the Order of Bath (also on display at the V&A) has now faded to pink, recasting the infamous womaniser as a camp icon. His plumed headdress, tassels and beribboned shoes, once emblematic of patriarchal power, now carry queer connotations.

Reynold’s Roges of the Order of Bath, source: National Gallery of Ireland

What becomes apparent as you wander through the exhibition is that man’s apparently enduring and constant legacy isn’t all that enduring or constant. Much of what we deem to be masculine today (and the way we choose to express it) is nothing more than a prevailing trend, one likely to be altogether different a few years, decades or centuries from now. Even the modern penchant for utilitarianism, conformity and restraint began life in 16th century Spain. Baldassarre Castiglione first spoke of admiration for the colour black in his 1528 book The Courtier. Drawing on the dress and formality of the Spanish courts, black was associated with constraint and control—admirable traits in any man of the period.

Fast forward a few hundred years of relative restraint and we arrive once again at fashion as rebellion: the counterculture of the Swinging Sixties where floral motifs and synthetic shades reigned supreme. Colour and pattern were seen as extensions of free thinking. Unfortunately, the degree of deviation from masculine (and societal) norms at the time led to the crack down not just of dress but of a whole countercultural movement.

The end of the exhibition—Redressed—sees a return to contemporary conformity. The straight, minimal silhouettes on display, all in black, give the appearance of a eulogy to the jubilant 60’s we’ve just come from. The patriarchy has regained its grip on our attire and, by extension, our expression.

Lavish textiles and ornamentation give way to sombre palettes and fine fabrics. Perhaps in retaliation to the perceived softness of the sixties, we see a return to the masculine beauty ideals of Ancient Greece: suits hugging and exaggerating the contours of the body in a performance of power and virility. Mass-production from the 19th century onwards made the suit accessible to all, giving birth to a new uniform for the modern man. But all is not lost.

Walking through this final room we see signs of subtle subversions hidden amongst the ominous silhouettes. From the extravagant accessories of the Incroyables to Raf Simons’ take on the cassock (the canonical dress of the Roman Catholic clergy), Haider Ackerman’s beautiful sequinned, space-age inspired ensemble for Timothée Chalamet’s Dune premiere, and, finally, Billy Porter’s incredible tuxedo dress.

Wandering through the exhibition I found it interesting to note which looks I was drawn to. What might they relay about my own conditioning and biases towards my identity as a man? Which rules and tropes had I inadvertently signed up to (and helped perpetuate), and how might I dress if I hadn’t? Instead of answers, I left with a resounding sense of calmness and peace, for the answer didn’t matter. There isn’t just one version of masculinity but multiple. And embracing that is the first step to finding the truest version of ourselves.

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