Sartorial Metamorphoses: The Evolution of Menswear
Last weekend London’s runways were graced by a fusion of fashion, culture and technology as Fashion Week returned in a digital-physical hybrid format, continuing it’s second run as a genderless event after the British Fashion Council announced the decision last year.
Meanwhile, across the city, the V&A were being similarly innovative – showcasing their first retrospective exhibition celebrating the art, power and politics of masculine fashion over time; an opportunity we couldn’t miss.
Exploring the Gucci-sponsored exhibition during London Fashion Week offered us the rare chance to traverse the timeline of menswear and masculine attire end to end, from old world origins to the fashion world’s most recent manifestations, pushing us to consider the future phases of men’s luxury fashion and how brands can stay relevant and competitive in the market.
Charting fashion from ancient Greek sculptures to modern day designs, the showcase is a powerful call to action to designers and influential brands alike to dismantle the binary nature of gender through the power of fashion.
It’s a demonstrative effort to prove that gender has always been a construct, revealing how codes of fashion throughout history have been shaped by the ever-shifting masculine ideal and imploring visitors to question what fashion could look like without ideas of masculinity looming over the industry like a shadow.
The Variety of Vogue
Split into three galleries: Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed, the Fashioning Masculinities exhibition shows visitors “a comprehensive and often surprising view of what ‘menswear’ actually means now and how far it’s come.”
Its non-chronological structure is an intriguing examination of the changes in style that were dictated by not only time but current affairs, subcultures, politics, class hierarchies and more.
“For centuries, masculine fashion has been a vital mechanism for imposing conformity or expressing individuality. Through sculpture, paintings, photography and fashion, the exhibition charts the shifting modes for portraying masculine style: shaping bodies, flaunting status or wealth, constructing and deconstructing tailoring norms, and ultimately revelling in beauty.”
Beginning with an examination of the stripped-back masculine figure, the retrospective takes visitors through the vibrant flamboyance of early modern history’s nobility, the rise of dandyism and its contemporary iterations, ultimately ending by showcasing iconic menswear styles and ensembles from the past half century.
Brilliantly, in championing the changes, this structure also exposes the continuities that exist between various trends, periods and cultural expectations, creating a mental web of strings that connect history to our contemporary moment – showing what menswear has been and informing what it could be.
In the opening gallery titled ‘Undressed’, curators have explored how classical European ideals of the male body have been preserved and undermined over centuries of culture and fashion.
Tracing a pattern from the athletic builds of ancient sculptures, whether it’s the brawn of the Farnese Hercules or fragmented depictions of lithe, agile figures, the exhibition examines how these classical influences have permeated men’s fashion.
Today’s ubiquitous white shirt has translucent origins; the fabric chosen to emphasise the masculine silhouette and create a borderline state of undress, while the hyper-muscularity of the renowned Farnese Hercules has given rise to contemporary gym culture.
At times (while it may be hard to believe), sinewy muscles weren’t the ideal.
In the mid-1500s, the masculine ideal of a strong, defined upper-body fell out of favour during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign due to its affiliation with poverty and strenuous manual labour. A prejudice that endured for centuries since.
Historically, despite its complicated connotations in today’s society, the word ‘fat’ had positive definitions meaning ‘fertile’ and ‘abundant’ in agricultural contexts. From the 1600s through to the Gilded Age, fat bodies were the ideal; symbolic of wealth-making and affluence at a time when most of the general population struggled to feed themselves.
1960s counterculture saw another shift, away from the lean, clean-cut Hollywood figure of the 1920s to a much more slender, almost androgenous model popularised by icons like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.
Simultaneously, mainstream culture was seeing a return of the muscular with the launch of the Action Man in ‘66, a likely catalyst for the concurrent masculine ideal counters mentioned above. The figure’s growing popularity until the 1980s’ re-established notions that masculinity equates to dominance, oppression, virility and stoicism. Notions that are only just beginning to be unpicked during conversations around toxic masculinity, paralleling crescendoing conversations around male body positivity.
Although we have seen the women’s body positivity movement come on leaps and bounds in recent years, we still tend to only see two types of male bodies in men’s fashion: muscular or slim. The revolution for men has been achingly slow but demand for more diversity on the runway is there and it’s time for brands to listen.
It will only take one revolutionary disruption to change the course of this conversation. And only a pioneering brand with initiative, commitment and a near-deafening voice has the chance to succeed. Who will be the first to take on that Herculean task? Who knows but they’ll go down in history when they do.
Historically, styles, colours and patterns that have since been designated as exclusively feminine were all the rage in menswear to denote wealth or a high rank.
Throughout the exhibition, we’re walked through how these fashions transitioned from masculine to feminine and why.
Unsurprisingly, much of what was worn to construe wealth and status was expensive. Either to import, or to make. The expense to have intricate patterns created with delicate fabrics and ostentatious embellishment instantly denoted affluence.
Florals were also highly fashionable in menswear prior to the 19th century before the motifs became synonymous with camp or effeminate style. Certain flowers have been associated with queer identities: violets for lesbians inspired by Sapphic poetry while buttercups, daisies and peonies were associated with gay men.
Most famously, Oscar Wilde wore a green carnation to signal his sexuality as other members of the Aesthetic Movement wore lilies or sunflowers to illustrate their devotion to the ‘Cult of Beauty’.
In the 18th century, specifically, pink was the colour of wealth and opulence. As it was a rare dye, it cost much more to import. It was only the first half of the 20th century that initiated the colour’s ties to femininity.
Now we’re seeing younger designers reclaiming the hue and using it in new ways: ‘subverting 20th-century gender norms and establishing a chromatic connection with the flamboyance and freedom of past fashions.’
The shift is clear visually too.
In the second gallery we see portraits and ensembles of 18th century nobility adorned in beautiful pink patterns and intricate designs that were the tradition for their rank at the time. Beyond them is a design by Harris Reed that pays homage to 1970s glam rock and celebrates gender-fluidity – the puffed sleeves and lace ruffle collar call back to those historical portraits – and the proximity of the two, conservative and boundary-pushing, highlight the power of pink in completely opposing contexts.
While the reintroduction of pink, florals, lace and silks for men is a welcome one, contemporary fashion goes beyond material choices. The scarce and the striking still appeal to us but with the rapid advancement of technology and instant gratification now the norm, designers and labels are having to redefine luxury and reimagine what makes something special.
NFTs will play a prominent role in fashion’s future, with many luxury brands having already made their Web3 debut. Gucci themselves partnered with luxury streetwear brand Superplastic on an NFT collection ‘SuperGucci’ which features the latter’s styling in Gucci’s famous prints. Each NFT came with a ceramic figure made by Gucci’s ceramicists in Italy.
The limited edition nature of these collections is endlessly alluring and we’re seeing a taste for the one-of-a-kind in the form of archival fashion too. Pivotal pieces in fashion history have surged in popularity, with Kim Kardashian recently (and controversially) wearing Marilyn Monroe’s iconic ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ gown to the 2022 Met Gala.
As luxury becomes more accessible, forward-thinking brands should be placing significant focus on the value of rarity and how they can spin it to their advantage.
(De)Constructing Tailoring Norms
Europe took a new approach to fashion following the French Revolution. Lavish designs and eccentricity – fashions which were almost exclusively associated with the aristocracy: A.K.A enemy No.1 to revolutionaries – were out and more practical forms of dress were in as the new spirit of rationality constricted masculine style into a one-size-fits-all model: the suit.
An epitome of masculine sophistication in contemporary popular thought, the familiar evening-wear ensemble has come to reek of classist, patriarchal overtones despite its origins as a stark deviation from the elite and aristocratic.
Its predecessor, the coat frock, was the staple for European gentlemen in the 20th century while the well-known ‘tuxedo’ receives its name from a New York country club – put simply, the suit is a complex visual embodiment of both patriarchal privilege and suppression.
Its beginnings are what ties the classic tailored suit to our ideas of formality and convention and while those associations persist today, the power that accompanied those wearing suits is less perceivable now.
As the suit became a global export in the 1900s, it unsurprisingly transformed into everyone and their fathers’ wardrobe mainstay. While the Don Drapers of the world were perceived as impressive, the omnipresence only served to deplete any kind of individuality among men.
To preface the exhibition, Gucci’s Creative Director, Alesssandro Michele, repurposed a statement from the brand’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection:
‘In a patriarchal society, masculine gender identity is often moulded by violently toxic stereotypes. A dominant, winning, oppressive masculinity model is imposed at birth. Attitudes, languages and actions end up progressively conforming to a macho virility ideal that removes vulnerability and dependence.
Any possible reference to femininity is aggressively banned, as it is considered a threat against the complete affirmation of a masculine prototype that allows no divergences. There is nothing natural in this drift. The model is socially and culturally built to reject anything that doesn’t comply with it.’
Men as a gender have never been uninterested in fashion at all. Social prejudices and historical factors have unfortunately led to a whole gender who feel constricted when it comes to fashion, with any androgynous or perceivably-feminine looks explicitly outlawed.
Luckily, that fear is beginning to wane, leaving a gap for brands who can build up bravery in masculine style as more and more men are finding freedom in fashion again, reminiscent of the exuberance, fun, glamour and joy that defined menswear historically.
As this freedom filters through our culture and men get intimate with their identities again, brands need to design for the personal, the particular and the unique.
‘Subculture is the new pop culture’ – David Fischer, Founder of Highsnobiety
Like music, fashion became a defining feature of subcultures from post-war periods to our present.
One of Britain’s most famous subcultures, the rock’n’roll Teddy Boys, took inspiration from Edwardian romanticism, becoming modern day dandys in an ironic, rebellious way while jazz, ska and soul-loving Mods adopted mass-produced Italian tailoring styles as their uniform.
Today, subcultures are far less clear cut but specific music genres still have immense influence on fashion. Hip-hop in particular has come to dominate the world of high-fashion despite its historical resistance to the elite or the mainstream.
Born in early 1970s New York City, the genre arose in the streets of The Bronx as young men rebelled against austerity and uniformity, producing a distinctive style that popularised tracksuits and chains – two styles which continue to centre many high-fashion outfits in modern day.
A handful of luxury brands have brought on designers who stem from streetwear backgrounds; Kim Jones for Dior, JW Anderson for Loewe and the late Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton have given high-fashion a streetstyle makeover that doesn’t seem to be fading and has contributed towards the ongoing unshackling of masculine style.
Comfort concerns as well as vested interest in quality and durability is now the rule rather than the exception. The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed the deterioration of traditional workwear while the climate crisis has encouraged more sustainable and ethical consumer choices.
Many luxury streetwear collections, whether collaborative or from a single brand, have catered to these interests. Among them is Louis Vuitton’s SS21 capsule collection. Inspired by rapper 21 Savage, the collection is almost an homage to West Coast skaters and artists and made with sustainably-sourced cotton.
Before his untimely passing, Artistic Director Abloh made waves with a statement he made to Dazed claiming that streetwear was dead. Later clarifying to Vogue ‘I didn’t say it to be polarising… if you speak to anyone that’s been in streetwear the past fifteen years, it’s always had this sort of nine lives, dying and coming back, dying and coming back.’
He wasn’t wrong. As demonstrated by the exhibition, fashion in all its iterations and classifications has transformed in generations. Abloh believed streetwear’s regeneration is happening now inside the haute couture and luxury space.
Fashion and style no longer need to be squeezed into separate boxes but rather viewed spectrally, acceptance for individuals to adopt vastly distinctive styles into one wardrobe has entered the mainstream.
Dressing Beyond The Binary
As the suit was seen as the outfit for men for much of the twentieth century, women and LGBTQ+ communities have reclaimed the style, openly (and often fabulously) subverting the systems and institutions that dictate the boundaries of gender, sexuality and any other expression of identity.
In 1932, star of the silver screen, Marlene Dietrich, famously donned a tux, bowtie and top hat in her film Morocco, a rare move for females in the industry to make. Her fearless fashion wasn’t the first instance of gender non-conformity in Hollywood – Vesta Tilley and Gladys Bentley had done similar previously – but Dietrich’s preference for masculine style continued off-screen and she was often seen in a suit with a boxy silhouette.
In 1975, photographer Helmut Newton shot a series of black and white editorials which highlighted the androgenous spirit of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo, appearing in the Paris Vogue that same year.
In 1996, supermodel Claudia Schiffer wore a later iteration of the ensemble, giving rise to the power suit trend embraced in the 90s.
In 2018, Stella McCartney gave her touch of modern elegance to the art of suiting, wearing a tuxedo-style jumpsuit to her Spring show reminiscent of British tailoring’s signature silhouettes.
In 2019, Pose star, queer icon and prominent activist Billy Porter caused sensation on the Oscar’s red carpet with his gender-bending tuxedo gown by Christian Siriano. Inspired by New York’s underground ballroom culture, the look was an exquisite play on masculinity and femininity and part of Porter’s wider objective to be ‘a walking piece of political art’ at every event.
We’re consistently seeing the concept of the suit, and wider gendered dress, be reinvented. The global genderless fashion market is expected to reach $3.2 billion by 2032. Though it’s clearly not a new pattern, non-conformity through dress and style is becoming increasingly visible thanks to celebrity endorsement and a general reexamination of gender. From runways to red carpets, designers are leaning into the ‘no rules’ fashion moment, deconstructing convention and pushing boundaries to break.
Some of the most visible names in fluid fashion include Harry Styles, specifically his American Vogue cover in which he wears a Gucci gown; Kid Cudi, who made headlines many times in 2021 for his out-there outfits by the likes of Louis Vuitton and Off White; Lil Nas X has stunned plenty of spectators with his out-of-this-world ensembles for music videos and award shows alike and of course those who have been flying the flag of gender-fluid fashion before social and cultural tolerance caught up: the likes of David Bowie, Prince and Freddie Mercury.
Gender boundaries are already blurred but luxury brands need to anticipate a complete dissolution of the lines that separate menswear from women’s. Some are already.
Donatella Versace is designing for ‘a generation that doesn’t care about gender’.
Gucci has launched MX, a subsidiary to the House advocating ‘self-expression in the name of all gender equality.’
Stella McCartney created a capsule collection that can be shared between all wardrobes, inspired by youth’s inclusive-celebration ‘of individuality and diversity’.
Marc Jacobs’ 2020 line ‘Heaven’ is a polysexual collection of eccentric collectibles and streetwear ‘that connects subcultures around the world and recontextualises them for a new generation’.
And we’ve already established Louis Vuitton’s dedicated to the gender-fluid fashion movement. Creative Director Nicolas Ghesquière says the brand is on a ‘voyage of exploration…to discover and abolish the last frontiers’ of gender.
For brands in the menswear market, these shifts could necessitate vast reimaginations of their future. Whether it’s construing status, dismantling norms or simply revelling in the beauty of art, masculine style is being sculpted in new and captivating ways and brands need to become pioneers.
We’re already seeing avant-garde take on new meaning as this vitality in designers of our moment, lesser-known and established, coincides with a wider reconsideration of gender identity.
With our end to end perspective of menswears history, we’ve speculated on the future of masculine styles, listing key trends that are unfolding now and predictions for the long-term.
Conversations and activism surrounding male body positivity are rapidly unfolding. A glance at the timeline of an ever-shifting masculine ideal proves that there is no such thing. Shaped by social systems, class and cultural hierarchies, our world is far too diverse and intricate to pin down perfection and we shouldn’t want to. All bodies are beautiful. Be the brand that champions the sentiment better than even before. Be the brand that makes history.
Driving desire and generating hype with limited-edition collections, NFTs and any other digital diamonds will cater to rising consumer demands for exclusivity, immediacy and rarity. Evidently, humans have always been drawn to the scarce and the unfamiliar, a nagging curiosity that captures our minds when we encounter the rare or the one-of-a-kind. In an oversaturated market, brands need to anticipate these demands expanding tenfold and what their unique, rare offerings could be.
Fear of nonconformity is waning, giving rise to a reestablished passion for fashion in men. A subtle suit or uninspiring jeans won’t cut it anymore as men are reexamining forms of self-expression outside of patriarchal parameters. There’s a huge space here for brands to provide encouraging and educational resources, lead conversations and campaigns dismantling the monotony of menswear and create collections that champion the bravery we’re seeing more and more of.
Embracing diversity, niche natures and the multicultural will give brands an uncapped source of inspiration. Brands who can thread the needle through past, present and future while weaving in influences from music genres, art and social movements will survive and thrive as various styles regenerate and transform while those who can’t flail in the ether. One-size-fits-all needs to be a thing of the past and to consumers, it already is. Variety is the new black.
Thanks to Gen Z and Millenials, genderless fashion is going to be a defining feature over the next decade. As non-binary voices become more and more heard in popular dialogues, splitting fashion into two opposing categories just seems restrictive. So where up-and-coming designers are already swimming in the waters that blur the binary, established brands need to be diving in alongside them, ready for a future that is a beautiful cocktail of history, future, masculine, feminine and personal influence. Already being heralded as a new norm by a handful of celebrities, luxury labels need to take this lead and design exclusively for self-expression, whatever that may look like.
The dominant, oppressive masculine ideal model is being deserted, and the toxic ban on femininity is being left behind with it.
Designers and luxury brands now have the freedom to be experimental with their upcoming collections, a drastic removal of patriarchal uniforms and inflicted trends in favour of individuality and personal influence.
“It’s time to celebrate a man who is free to practise self-determination, without social constraints, without authoritarian sanctions, with suffocating stereotypes.”
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