Drawing primarily from LACMA’s renowned collection, Reigning Men celebrates three hundred years of restraint and resplendence in menswear.
Histories of fashion have tended to focus primarily on womenswear, with menswear often appearing as little more than a side note to the main story. “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015” directly challenges the equation of fashion with femininity in this survey spanning three hundred years of fashionable men’s dress, organized in five thematic sections: Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness and The Splendid Man. Drawing primarily from LACMA’s renowned permanent collection, “Reigning Men” makes illuminating connections between history and high fashion, traces cultural influences over the centuries, and celebrates a rich history of restraint and resplendence in menswear.
Revolution / Evolution
For centuries, men’s fashions have undergone revolutions in dress and evolutions of style that mirror similar shifts in society. This section studies historical fashion cycles while underscoring that the fashionable man has always been a part of society, constantly reinventing himself and often borrowing from his forefathers.
Influenced by continental styles, the macaroni — named after the Italian pasta dish enjoyed by well-to-do young Englishmen on the “Grand Tour” of the European continent — dressed to assert his cosmopolitan outlook. At a time when British men wore looser silhouettes, the macaroni wore ensembles that were noticeable for their bright colors and slim cuts.
Revolution And Anarchy
During the final period of the French Revolution, gangs of young men roamed the streets of Paris wearing tight, extravagantly cut tail coats and cropped pantaloons, often in conspicuously striped fabrics. These incroyables, or “incredible ones,” were fashion extremists whose outrageous appearance, so different from their forefathers, illustrated the instability of the period. Centuries later, Walter Van Beirendonck appropriated the look, eclipsing its excesses with skin-tight leather trousers and a superbly tailored, orange frock coat.
Punks used a variety of do-it-yourself strategies in creating their personal anti-fashion statements, as typified by this leather jacket. Its patches and button badges display the wearer’s affinity for bands such as the Ramones, as well as for CBGB, the New York music club. Metal tops from disposable cigarette lighters edge the collar, lapel, and cuffs, while the zipper pulls are adorned with a cross with a blade, miniature pistols, and a skull.
Aesthete And Hippie
Following World War II, some London tailors resurrected elements of Edwardian-era styles, creating a look that was characterized by long single-breasted jackets with narrow shoulders and velvet trim. Originally worn by the wealthy, the neo-Edwardian style was soon adopted by young working-class men, albeit with more exaggeration and color. Though “Teddy boys” (as they were dubbed, after the traditional nickname for Edward) were considered delinquents by the popular press, these modern-day dandies were precursors to the 1960s Peacock Revolution of flamboyant dress for men.
Youth And Rebellion
Flamboyant in style and exaggerated in proportion, zoot suits were born from the swing clubs and dance halls frequented by urban youths in the 1930s and early 1940s. This extremely rare example, probably from Harlem, has overly broad shoulders with wide, pegged sleeves, free-hanging bag pockets that flew outward from the body while dancing, and deeply pleated pegged trousers. Such suits were a form of cultural and personal expression for jazz enthusiasts and African American, Latino, Jewish, and other immigrant communities.
The early nineteenth century saw the emergence of the dandy—the term given to extremely fashion-conscious men whose style was the height of refined elegance and who favored clothing that accentuated the body. During this period, tail coats were constructed with new and innovative tailoring techniques that manipulated wool fabric into idealized silhouettes, while the front cutaway of the coat and vest above the hips revealed trousers that outlined a man’s physique.
In 1994, at the age of twenty-seven, Ozwald Boateng became both the youngest and the first black tailor to open a house in Savile Row, London’s historic fashion locality. Born in north London to Ghanaian immigrants, Boateng’s custom suits blend traditional tailoring techniques with non-traditional textiles. This example illustrates his global approach, made with British wool tweeds that recall the patterns of West African cloth, constructed into a modern slim silhouette.
East / West
For centuries, interactions between East and West have profoundly influenced menswear across the globe. Ensembles in this section observe how international cultural exchanges have influenced men’s fashions for centuries.
In the late seventeenth century, clothing from both the Far East and the Middle East influenced European fashion in the form of the banyan, an informal at-home garment made of silk, linen, or cotton. The T-shape of this banyan resembles the form of a Japanese kimono but is constructed of mordant-painted and resist-dyed cotton produced in India for the European market. Known as chintz or calico in the West, these colorfast, washable textiles were popular imports used for home furnishings and clothing during the first half of the eighteenth century.
Smoking And Leisure
Originally used in the late nineteenth century to bundle together cigars and advertise cigar brands, these silk ribbons were frequently collected by women and stitched together to create useful home articles, such as bed covers, pillow tops, decorative tablecloths, and occasionally pieces of clothing. Silk cigar bands transformed a pinstriped wool jacket into this unique example of both a literal and figurative smoking jacket.
This lounge suit for a European gentleman was made of soft, lightweight cashmere woven in Kashmir, India, that was embellished with silk embroidery prior to being cut and tailored. The patterns feature stylized tulips, leaves, and teardrop shapes with bending tips (called boteh or buta, also known as paisley) often seen on handwoven Kashmir shawls, which were fashionable among European and American women from the mid-eighteenth through the nineteenth century.
The whimsical fauna and flora pattern on this Dries Van Noten coat is imitative of an 1858 French complex woven silk textile designed by Lemire and Sons. Van Noten discovered the textile in the collection of Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris while planning his first retrospective in 2014. Many of the French textile’s fanciful animals and birds, as well as its ornate multicolored flora, were undoubtedly influenced by motifs on historic Chinese textiles. Similarly colorful motifs abound in examples from the Ming dynasty.
The Inverness cape, a sleeveless overcoat with an attached cape, was introduced to Japan during the late Edo period (1615–1868), where it was modified with enlarged armholes to accommodate the sleeves of a kimono. Popularly known as tonbi (black hawk), the overcoats were made of imported wool (rasha) and were fashionable during the Taishō (1912–26) and early Shōwa (1926–89) periods among intellectuals, professionals, and the wealthy, who often added a Western-style hat to their kimono ensemble.
With this ensemble, Yusuke Takahashi honored his mentor Issey Miyake’s admiration for Japanese textile traditions by utilizing a clamp-resist dyeing technique known as itajime. Yardage was systematically folded, clamped between two rectangular templates, and placed into a black dye vat. After the dyed fabric was dried and unfolded, select areas that resisted the black dye were printed red or blue and used to create a contemporary fashionable textile that also evokes historic Japanese textiles.
Dictates of both etiquette and function have long served as inspiration to fashionable menswear. This section acknowledges that while military and working uniforms might appear to limit individual expression, a closer examination reveals that high standards persist even in conventional capacities.
This intriguing denim jacket was crafted in a laser-printing technique called “Wattwash.” This image of a young beggar boy, wearing a coat of a similar blue cloth, is taken from a painting by an anonymous seventeenth-century Italian artist who has been dubbed the “Master of Blue Jeans” for his frequent depiction of denim clothing. The reproduction of this painting on a contemporary jacket demonstrates that denim has in fact had a long history of use and appreciation.
For conducting daily business, French aristocrats and wealthy merchants of the mid-eighteenth century commonly donned a matching three-piece suit, typically made of fashionable silk in pastel colors. The suit consisted of a collarless coat, cut long with a full pleated skirt, and worn with a hip-length waistcoat and knee-length breeches. This example of pink silk velvet with a pattern of small red flower buds lacks the additional ornamental embroidery reserved for court.
Brooks Brothers, an American menswear institution, has fashioned suits and casual attire for two hundred years. In 2007, the clothier partnered with Thom Browne, known for his innovative play with suit proportions, to create the “Black Fleece” collection, blending modern design with traditional dress. A white suit recalls the casual air of light summer suits, yet is updated with matching leg-baring tennis shorts.
Constructed with multiple pockets and demonstrating a looser fit than other coats popular at the time, this green shooting jacket and matching vest from the 1840s were considered the optimum uniform by sportsmen. Not only was it made of water-resistant wool/silk velvet, the jacket’s roomier, hip-length cut allowed for greater freedom of movement for the hunt. Initially designed for active wear, the style would evolve into the sack jackets still fashionable today.
Full evening dress (also known as “white tie”) originated in the early nineteenth century— in particular, with the evening ensemble of George “Beau” Brummell, an iconic figure in men’s fashion. The white tie ensemble seen here dates from the 1930s; more than a century after Brummell’s heyday its components still include a black tail coat and trousers, set off by a white waistcoat and white bow tie.
The fashion featured in this section demonstrates that men have been just as preoccupied with enhancing their physiques as women.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s career has been noted for his challenges to fashion’s conventional gender roles. His men’s pinstriped jacket is fitted around the torso with zippers, laces, and shirred elastic thread to emulate a corset. Although sometimes worn by men, corsets have been primarily associated with women throughout the undergarment’s history.
In the early nineteenth century, the dark wool tail coat reinforced post–French Revolutionary ideals of utilitarianism and restraint. Additionally, the malleable quality of wool allowed tailors to pad and mold a formfitting coat with more ease than previously known, and the perfect fit soon symbolized the dress of a gentleman. The contours of coats were engineered with padding that lined the sides and upper torso, secured with silk lining and fine stitching. With the assistance of the hot iron, a tailor could create a carefully molded shoulder line and chest that disguised bodily shortcomings and achieved an ideal figure.
Kean Etro pays tribute to the eminent skills of the master tailors of Italian menswear by presenting an ensemble that quite literally narrates its evolution. In a brilliant play on creating pattern and structure, the suit and overcoat are decorated in the tailor-tack threads, layered padding, and pick stitches that are commonly used by tailors in creating a bespoke (custom-made) suit.
By 1850, when men and women were permitted to share public bathing and swimming facilities, appropriate costume became an issue. In the latter part of the century, men’s swimsuits were composed of truncated trousers and a belted shirt. The long tunic and dark colors, which were less revealing than light colors when wet, preserved the wearer’s modesty.
Carol Christian Poell is known for incorporating unusual materials into his work, including plastics, metal, and human hair. A transparent cardigan jacket knit from plastic tubing undermines both the inherent softness and opacity of yarn, since the garment yields neither concealment nor warmth.
The Splendid Man
The clothing in this section consider how fashion designers throughout history have challenged prevailing notions of menswear and masculinity.
For the ultrachic dandies (sapeurs) of the Congos, fashion and style are not only a means of self expression, but an artful way of life. Members of la SAPE, an acronym for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), hail largely from Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and abide by a strict code of dress and gentility. Their expensive and eye-catching looks, often purchased from Paris, London, or Milan, are beacons of a sapeur’s pride, work ethic, and ability to save, born from and in spite of the poverty and war surrounding them.
Contemplating the future
A culmination of the themes explored in Reigning Men is summarized by two looks which acknowledge the past while considering the future of menswear. A ruffled suit by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons blurs the line between masculine and feminine.
Ahmed Abdelrahman for Thamanyah’s deconstructed kandora reinterprets dress traditions of the Middle East with Western aesthetics. Additionally, Mark Mahoney’s tattoo design exemplifies the recent fashion for body ink; once regarded as subversive, this personal and permanent accessory is now lauded as an expressive art form.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest art museum in the western United States. A museum of international stature as well as a vital part of Southern California, LACMA shares its vast collections through exhibitions, public programs, and research facilities that attract over a million visitors annually. LACMA’s collections encompass the geographic world and virtually the entire history of art. Among the museum’s special strengths are its holdings of Asian art, housed in part in the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art; Latin American art, ranging from pre-Columbian masterpieces to works by leading modern and contemporary artists including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Jose Clemente Orozco; and Islamic art, of which LACMA hosts one of the most significant collections in the world.
LACMA located on the Pacific Rim, with a collection of nearly 140,000 objects that illuminate 6,000 years of artistic expression across the globe. Committed to showcasing a multitude of art histories, LACMA exhibits and interprets works of art from new and unexpected points of view that are informed by the region’s rich cultural heritage and diverse population. LACMA’s spirit of experimentation is reflected in its work with artists, technologists, and thought leaders as well as in its regional, national, and global partnerships to share collections and programs, create pioneering initiatives, and engage new audiences.