No one blinked when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it was dedicating its 2011 Costume Institute show to Alexander McQueen. “Of course,” went the thinking; “he was a design genius.” And since the show opened, it has been the subject of many wildly enthusiastic reviews. Yet there is a glaring omission at its heart: it’s 99 per cent women’s wear – but McQueen also made, and makes, men’s wear. Does that not belong in the museum too?
Most people’s first reaction would be no: it’s too boring. With dark suits and coats as standard uniform, or the odd bold print shirt, what could there be to sustain interest, room after room? And the alternative – avant-garde S&M and cyber aesthetics – is, as Kristina Haugland, associate curator of costumes and textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says, “weird for men to look at”. A men’s wear show just wouldn’t pull in the punters. Or so conventional wisdom might think.
Increasingly, curators beg to differ, including Haugland, whose current exhibition, The Peacock Male, looks at men’s fashion since the 18th century. The Nordiska Museet in Stockholm is touting a show of men’s swimwear, complete with leopard Tarzan trunks, wrestler-inspired models, Bjorn Borg boxer shorts and more; London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is home to a Yohji Yamamoto retrospective that includes, for the first time, his men’s wear; next week in London the Fashion and Textile Museum will feature the work of Tommy Nutter, the 1970s Savile Row tailor with a client list including Mick Jagger, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber; and this autumn MoMu (the fashion museum in Antwerp) will showcase a retrospective of Walter Van Beirendonck, the Belgian avant-garde superstar.
Which is not to say that creating a visually arresting, conceptually convincing, men’s wear museum show is necessarily an easy sell, either to the public or the institution itself.
Amanda Creutzer, curator of the recent Dandy show at the Nordiska Museet, says: “We had to work very hard to make the show more interesting, for example, with content and context, especially around everyday clothing.” This is true even if, as Haugland says, “There are more changes in men’s silhouettes than people realise, as in the 1950s when the classic suit tightened up, pleats appeared, jackets and trousers shrunk, cuts narrowed and pockets were bound.” Hence the Nordiska’s introduction of an interactive element to the Dandy show, with touch screens dotted around the space for visitors to vote for their favourite outfit.
Similarly, location of items can play a part in how viewers experience the clothes. “[Yohji] Yamamoto’s outlandish designs are in the main space to show off the textures and fabrics,” says Victoria and Albert curator Ligaya Salazar. “The less outlandish pieces [such as his signature business suits and utility wear] are in the satellite spaces to emphasise their story, which would have been overlooked in the main space.”
For the Tommy Nutter exhibit, his famous shop is being meticulously recreated in the Fashion and Textile Museum, with the original shop front, fixtures, fittings and even a tailor working live in the replicate cutting room; Nutter’s rock ’n’ roll connections are also being emphasised. As Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the museum, explains: “Stage costumes give a framework that is more than just suits.”
Nutter’s glittering costumes for Elton John, Neil Sedaka and others are much more flamboyant than Walter Van Beirendonck’s costumes for U2’s PopMart tour, which will be on view at MoMu and include black suits and khakis. Indeed, their very accessibility may be the surprise. To further bring Van Beirendonck’s designs down to earth, says Kaat Debo, the director of MoMu, “We’re using objects such as African masks, Hopi Kachina dolls [from the Native American tribe], his workbooks and other sources of inspiration to help people understand his work, such as why he uses latex and crochet masks.”
‘Tommy Nutter: Rebel on the Row’ is at The Fashion and Textile Museum, May 20 to October 22, www.ftmlondon.org,
‘Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the World Awake’ is at MoMu – Fashion Museum Antwerp, September 14 to February 19 2012, www.momu.be
‘Dandy’ is at the Nordiska Museet until the end of May; ‘Men in Bathing Suits’ is also at the Nordiska Museet until September 18, www.nordiskamuseet.se
‘The Peacock Male’ is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until July; Tailoring Philadelphia is also on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until end of summer, www.philamuseum.org
‘Yohji Yamamoto’ is at the V&A until July 10, www.vam.ac.uk