Martini Diaries- Episode 18. My visit to the Victoria and Albert Exhibition – Fashioning Masculinities

The focus of this week’s diary is my recent visit to a new exhibition at the V&A in London: Fashioning Masculinities – The Art of Menswear. After visiting the exhibition I also purchased the accompanying book by V&A Publishing. A weighty tomb of a publication! So, my review considers the exhibition and the book as a joint experience. The audio version of this blog is here:

This is the first major exhibition at the V&A to celebrate the power, artistry, and variety of male attire and appearance. Tristram Hunt (Director of the V&A) states the exhibition will also “deconstruct norms and forms of masculinity”. I must have missed that part – I thought the exhibition perfectly demonstrated the norms and forms!

In terms of structure the exhibition, and book, takes one through three stages: Undressed; Overdressed; Redressed.

Undressed begins with consideration of the male classical ideal, and the evolution of under garments. In Overdressed the focus shifts to the Tudor and Regency periods, with wonderfully extraordinary examples of linens and silks and vivid colours. Finally, with a tribute to the influence of Beau Brummel, Redressed considers the monochrome period, and the suit as we know it today.

The exhibits are fabulous, carefully arranged to enable, in many cases, a 360 degree view. There is also a welcome focus on accessories in support of the evolution of male grooming.

I particularly enjoyed the evolution of the humble suit. The suit has always been there, in varying forms, from armour through uniforms to the de-mob suit from Burtons, and remains the bedrock still of male style. I am left with the impression from seeing that evolution in the exhibition that the formal buttoned-up 19th century ideal (which emerged from Brummel) still presents to most males the rigid masculinity of which most men feel most comfortable with. We are less formal now (no tie with a suit for example is an increasing trend of the contemporary approach to the original ideal, but still men are wearing suits or jackets as the foundation) and the suit has evolved, yet it remains a cornerstone of the archeology of male style.

In the week before visiting the exhibition I had begun to experiment with not wearing a tie with my suit every day to work. I must confess to feeling strangely uncomfortable. Then, during the exhibition, I witnessed the many cravats, and how they had evolved as neck wear into ties – here was an example true male individualism, surely a part of what masculinity is about. The suit without a tie, it is so very bland (think of Sir Keir Starmer without a tie if you are looking for evidence).

Reflecting on the exhibition it was also interesting to see Athleisure and street wear in the same room as suits, jackets, tweeds, dinner jackets – it clearly has its place in the evolution, but one is drawn back to the image, and grooming, of Beau Brummel, the influence of the Grand Tour, and how that core style remains evident today. If anything, looking at this relaxed Athleisure wear against more formal ‘normal’ clothes in the same room shows how it remains a fringe style and would I suggest likely move many males back to comfortable conformity.

I left the exhibition feeling proud of my tailored suits, Jeremy’s Street shirts, handmade ties from Shaun Gordon and shoes from Northampton, as the bedrock of my style, and now having a deeper appreciation of their evolution. I also feel more accommodating to the less formal dress as a way of reinforcing that male ideal and masculinity. And, what of masculinity, obviously designed to be a key part of this exhibition. Masculinity is defined as qualities, roles or attributes characteristic of men. Is masculinity socially constructed? Is there evidence masculinity is influenced by cultural factors, and in dress? Yes, based on this exhibition, I would say so.

What impact did the exhibition make upon me? If the exhibition set to prove male fashion and style is dead and is now on an uninterruptible journey to gender fluidity I suggest it failed. What it has done is demonstrate that our history is dominated by a mix of power and individualism, that the male follows a careful path, occasionally with sparks of colour and flamboyance, but is much more comfortable with conformity.

I love museums and exhibitions. I like to be guided by two quotes from Sir Winston Churchill: ‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see’; and ‘If we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future.’ With mens’ style and defining masculinity this excellent exhibition allows us to look to the past to inspire us.