Gender fluidity in fashion is older than you think
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One of the most exciting names in fashion at the moment is Harris Reed, a 25-year-old British-American who has enjoyed huge success since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2020. His designs – worn by Harry Styles, Sam Smith, Iman and Emma Corrin – include architectural suits, pussy-bow blouses and tiered dresses. Deliberately non-gendered, they have struck a chord with an audience keen to blur the binaries of fashion.
While Reed’s designs challenge what we often deem “masculine” and “feminine”, as well as encouraging a more outlandish way of dressing, the idea isn’t new. That menswear has historically played with codes typically seen as gendered is a theme central to a new exhibition at the V&A. Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear opens this month investigating male clothing found across its vast collection. It opens with a sculptural piece by London-based designer Craig Green and balances a new generation of names such as Edward Crutchley and Grace Wales Bonner alongside fashion’s most significant disrupters, among them Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, Miuccia Prada (including Gary Oldman’s runway outfit from AW12) and Alexander “Lee” McQueen. There are also items such as a breastplate from 1565 and a teapot by potter James Hadley from 1881, artworks by Rodin, Degas and Joshua Reynolds, and Matthew Bourne’s Spitfire, featuring his dancers performing in white underwear.
The curators have used the exhibition – split into Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed sections – to draw comparisons between past and present. One of Reed’s pieces, a pink lamé puff-sleeved top with skintight matching flares and a French lace cravat, which the designer describes as “Victorian-esque meets Studio 54”, is compared to a painting by Joshua Reynolds from 1773-74 depicting Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont, in a white-feathered headdress and floor-length red cape (that over time has faded to pink).
“In choosing our garments, we wanted to find historical examples that show how individuals have been dressing in fluid ways for as long as individuals have been dressing,” says co-curator Rosalind McKever. “And how there are various motivations for that.” Coote, for example, used his cape to signify power, status, wealth – red was a notoriously expensive shade to produce during this period. She also notes a set of colourful men’s silk waistcoats from the 18th century pulled from the V&A collection. “It feels a very interesting time to be thinking about menswear at a moment when the industry is shifting away from binary mens- or womenswear,” says McKever. “These are bright and exciting examples that really resonate with our contemporary questions around men’s fashion. If we’re talking about bravery, these are extraordinarily bold.”
Think of subversive takes on masculinity and the flamboyant Beau Brummell and his modern counterpart Harry Styles spring to mind. Both are present in the exhibition, including Styles’s blue-velvet Gucci suit from 2019. Claire Wilcox, fashion historian and co-curator, also points to another pairing, a regal SS22 Edward Crutchley dress juxtaposed with a 19th-century dressing gown (made from recycled women’s fabric) as an example of the show’s effort to rethink preconceptions about what men have worn historically, and what they might wear today. “Men have not worn lace or ribbons for 150 years – but wouldn’t it be lovely if they started to again?”
Another portrait, from the court of James I, depicts Dudley, 3rd Baron North in an all-black outfit featuring a doublet and breeches that billow out. It is echoed in a leather womenswear look from 1992 by Gianni Versace (the late designer was a regular visitor to the V&A). McKever uses it as an example of a contemporary designer reimagining historical menswear as womenswear. Add to this footage of Tilda Swinton as Orlando, in Sally Potter’s 1992 film based on Virginia Woolf’s gender-explorative novel, and the ideas around fluidity in fashion are laid bare.
The collections for SS22 also reflect a braver spirit: clothes have been slashed to be more revealing, shirts are festooned in patterns, shorts have voluminous proportions and, in some circumstances, there are skirts too. There’s also been an increase in men buying statement jewellery, carrying bags usually categorised as “women’s handbags”, and wearing richer colours.
Jonathan Anderson is one of the most notable designers in recent years to embrace more experimentation with menswear, and the bandeau top and ruffled hemmed shorts that he offered for his landmark AW13 collection for JW Anderson are also featured in the exhibition. At the time, the collection was seen by many as a provocation. In hindsight, his intuition for the shift in mindset casts him as a non-binary pioneer. “When I did that collection the response to it was quite radical,” says Anderson. “It pushed a lot of buttons. But I realised that there was something missing in the zeitgeist that wasn’t being talked about. That collection was so blunt, uncompromising and unapologetic. It was really about self-expression and glorifying the idea that you [the consumer] make the [wardrobe] choices, not me.”
The show also champions the idea that menswear designers should be given equal creative licence as their counterparts in womenswear. “When we thought of fashion 10 years ago, the focus was always on womenswear and runway shows that focused on womenswear,” says London designer Priya Ahluwalia, who works with vivid graphics and upcycled fabrics, and brings her Nigerian and Indian heritage into both her mens- and womenswear designs. “Men are becoming more experimental with what they want to wear, how they use clothes to express themselves and what they are willing to experiment with. I think it’s really signalling a turning point.”
Donatella Versace agrees. “I have always believed that menswear was as important as womenswear,” she says. “Culturally speaking, men took a bit longer than women to be able to play with their image and use their style choices to tell something about themselves and their personality. Tackling menswear is very different from womenswear. You can push boundaries up to a point and changes are slower to happen, but this does not mean it is less fun.”
Even tailoring – that cornerstone of the male wardrobe – has gone back and forth on a spectrum throughout history, between Brummell’s dandy to the loose power suits of the ’80s or the ultra-skinny fit of Hedi Slimane’s tenure at Dior. Today’s suits range from Thom Browne, whose sober grey suits are shrunken to dramatic effect and are designed to be worn by either men or women, to Grace Wales Bonner, who fuses the traditions of Savile Row tailoring with sportswear codes. For her, clothes are all about self-possession and their transformative qualities – how certain things can alter the way you feel. “I remember some of the models at my shows,” says Wales Bonner, “I would put them in a suit, and they would carry themselves completely differently. They’d feel like a prince.”
“I think there is genuine change,” says Wilcox of the current shifts in fashion. She applauds the prominence of people using fashion for self-expression, such as actor Billy Porter wearing dresses on the red carpet, or Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy making an LGBT+ statement in a custom outfit featuring adapted works by American artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz, in collaboration with Jonathan Anderson at Loewe.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about menswear in this moment is its breadth of self-expression, be it political and/or flamboyant, sexy and/or glamorous, strong and/or fluid, or any various combination of those themes. I ask Wilcox how she hopes the V&A show might make an impact. She replies: “I really hope that it unlocks the dressing-up box for men.”
Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 19 March–6 November. In partnership with Gucci.
Casting, Sarah Booth at Ben Grimes Casting. Hair, Yumi Nakada Dingle at Management Artists. Make-up, Bari Khalique, using SS22 La Pausa de Chanel and Chanel Hydra Beauty. Set design, Josh Stovell at Saint Luke. Photographer’s assistants, Ivano Pagnussat, Charlotte Ellis and Rob Palmer. Stylist’s assistant, Ady Huq. Hair assistant, Yuri Kato. Set design assistant, Rufus Wilkinson. Production, Kit Pak Poy at Artworld
Letter in response to this article:
Dionysus cuts a dash in fashion’s gender fluidity stakes / From Rosa Bilston, New Haven, CT, US