“Reigning Men” Menswear Fashion Exhibit At The Saint Louis Art Museum

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On my second visit to the Saint Louis Art Museum’s newest exhibition, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715-2015, I made notes of my favorite items: a neon suit by Calvin Klein, a blazer by Ozwald Boateng, a zoot suit that is known to be one of a kind. During the first visit I was enthralled by the collection’s vastness, elated that an exhibit of this scale was being featured in St. Louis, a city full of individuals working to dismantle the notion that fashion can only thrive in cities like New York, Paris, London and Milan. Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the exhibition itself also works to dismantle notions—first, the myth that fashion is wholly a pastime reserved for women. “Reigning Men” instead offers a history lesson on men’s exquisite style sensibilities over time. 

Curators Genevieve Cortinovis, assistant curator of decorative arts, and Zoe A. Perkins, textile conservator, joined me on my second visit. Walking with me through the exhibition, they pointed out their favorite ensembles, gave me a history lesson on the shifting male silhouettes through time and shared their thoughts on the importance of fashion, here and all over the globe. 

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Is this the first fashion exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) that has been done on this scale?
Zoe: Certainly on the topic of men’s fashion. We held a major exhibition from the Costume Institute—which is now a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—in 1979. I was a volunteer at the time—it was titled Vanity Fair. That’s how I got my foot in the door. 

How did this exhibition come about?
Genevieve: Our former deputy director was really passionate about the subject matter, so he shepherded the project. I think the appeal was that we haven’t done a fashion exhibition like this in a long time, and that menswear exhibitions don’t often come around. 

Are there any pieces in this exhibition from the collections at SLAM?
Z: No, this is entirely from LACMA. They have an incredibly comprehensive collection of men’s fashion, with periods that aren’t represented in other collections around the world. 

G: They purchased a really large collection of 18th and 19th-century menswear and womenswear, so that is the basis for a lot of the show. Realizing that they had this wonderful collection of menswear, they saw the opportunity to put on a show that was devoted to that topic. From there, they started to collect and fill in gaps to round out the story they wanted to tell. 

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Zoe, you work with textiles. You’ve also been at SLAM since 1979. What were some similarities and differences that you noticed working with this exhibition?
Z: Costume is challenging, because it requires customized mannequins. Every mannequin that you see here has been modified for that particular garment. They had to utilize at least three different mannequin companies. 

G: And five different types of mannequins. 

Z: As you can see as we go through the show, men’s silhouettes changed over the years. In the 18th century, men were more full-bodied and pear-shaped, because fabric was symbolic of status. In the 19th century, the fashionable man wanted an hourglass shape. In the 20th century, a more physical, toned body with broad shoulders and a narrow waist affect was prevalent. 

And Genevieve, you’re an assistant curator of decorative arts, and you’ve also had experiences abroad. I remember that you went to Cambodia and worked with weavers.
G: I’ve had the opportunity to work with textiles here, and my background is in fashion and textile research. This is definitely my first major fashion exhibition. I did a show last year called Blow-Up that had some 1960’s and 1970’s fashion, and there’s a small exhibition in the Textile Gallery titled  Cross-Pollination. This kind of comprehensive exhibition is totally different. It’s very specialized and really impressive when you see it all happen. 

What was one of the most difficult things about bringing this exhibition to life?
G: Fitting the exhibition to our space was a challenge. And that’s a challenge with any traveling show. You want to keep the integrity of the exhibition, but you also have to deal with a completely new space and a new viewership. LACMA curates fashion exhibitions frequently, and so their general public is more used to seeing fashion shows in museums. We don’t have as many in St. Louis, so we’re trying to make the show work for our audience. There’s a little less freedom because of the specialized nature. We also added some things, like large photo mural images—those didn’t exist in L.A.—and the entry slideshow. 

What made you decide to use blown-up images?
G: We felt like we really wanted to ground the show in diversity, to show that these pieces were worn by a wide variety of people. We also wanted to give historical context to the pieces.  

What are your favorite items?
G: I’m kind of a Francophile. I really like the Incroyables ensemble (Incredible Ones). It’s the gentlemen with the distinctive hounds-ear hairstyle wearing two vests and a dark cravat, which was the trademark of the Incroyables. I think he’s an interesting figure—short-lived, exceedingly stylish. I’ve read about the Incroyables a lot, and I’ve seen caricatures, but I had never seen an original ensemble that had been fashioned. I have some contemporary favorites. I love the Raf Simons—the Man’s Ensemble, including shirt, skirt, trousers, tie and pair of shoes—and I also love the John Paul Gaultier tuxedo with the bifurcated skirts. 

Z: One of my favorites in the show is the Vivienne Westwood plaid suit. This was originally in the East/West-themed gallery because it has both Eastern and Western tailoring and fit. From the tailoring standpoint, the construction, the way the plaid is matched perfectly—it’s just a masterpiece. 

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1715 to 2015 is a long span of time. Did you notice any recycled silhouettes or themes that were happening earlier that reemerged in later years?
Z: That’s basically the way LACMA developed their collection. There are a lot of ensembles they could be collecting, but they usually acquire contemporary designs that have historical references. I think they’ve presented that throughout this show. We have the macaroni [a fashionable man in mid-18th-century England] and then the Vivienne Westwood 1991 interpretation. 

G: I also like the way that military wear permeates the show. This Burberry trench coat, for example. Thomas Burberry had the patent for this water-resistant fabric, and that trench coat was born in the trenches of World War I. It became a staple for both menswear and womenswear. 

Something that’s also interesting in discussions around menswear fashion is this pushback against flamboyancy. And to recognize in this exhibition that being flamboyant and ostentatious, through clothing, is something that’s been going on throughout time.

G: I think it’s interesting that in the 18th century, particularly before the revolution in France, there was this expectation that men were supposed to be as opulent and splendid as women. In the 19th century, more subdued suiting became the norm. It’s not that men suddenly didn’t care about fashion. They just cared about it in a different way. They would spend more time and effort on tailoring, and all of these unseen ways of being fashionable, instead of the luxurious textiles that we see from the 18th century. 

Z: In the 18th century, richly dyed textile was very expensive. So you were showing your wealth through these rich-colored textiles and silks. 

Why do you think a menswear exhibition is important right now?
Z: It is to break myths. Usually women’s fashion is considered dynamic, but men have always been fashionable. Museums weren’t always collecting men’s fashion. I think curators realized we have to remedy that. 

G: There is also this material survival bias. Menswear traditionally has not survived as well as womenswear, because menswear was passed down continually and in some cases worn to threads. So it’s harder to find those pieces because there was this natural bias in terms of what museums actually had. Like, why is it so hard to find a zoot suit? The one in the exhibition is the only one currently known of that exaggerated proportion. Right now, we’re also thinking about a breakdown of gender. Having a menswear show sheds light on what we may wear in the future—what we deem to be masculine and what we deem to be feminine.

Z: And I’m sure the curators at LACMA thought about that: if you’re going to do a menswear show, how do you make it interesting and thought-provoking? 

G: I think their strategy to find contemporary designers who are referencing historic costume or periods was a clever way to mediate what is a huge body of work. And it makes you think about contemporary fashion in a different way, seeing it juxtaposed next to historic ensembles. 

As far as a fashion exhibition of this scale coming to St. Louis, what do you think this adds to the city?
Z: You’d be surprised at how many people remember the Vanity Fair show, so it has a big impact. I think it’s reminding us that fashion is art. 

G: And that fashion is also global. We all have the opportunity to participate in this global conversation. 

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To coincide with “Reigning Men,” the Saint Louis Art Museum has organized a series of events.
-August 12: A Fashion History of St. Louis Bus Tour
-August 25: SLAM Underground
-September 1: Conversation and Cocktails – Hip Hop and Fashion: From the Streets to the Runway 

This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned organization. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing. Photos courtesy of those listed.

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