The V&A Wanted to Subvert Toxic Masculinity but Ended Up Reinforcing It

LONDON — Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear is by definition vast in scope, encompassing not only men’s fashion in its entirety (or, specifically, though not explicitly stated, Western fashion), but also artworks spanning classical antiquity to the present, “[charting] the shifting modes for portraying masculine style,” as the opening caption promises. The ordinary visitor surely deserves laser precision in curating to navigate this broad historical narrative and establish the contemporary relevance of the curators’ arguments. Yet additional interests and agendas confuse and sometimes compromise this effort. First, the same caption introduces the polarizing concept that “masculine fashion has been a vital mechanism for composing conformity or expressing individuality.” The statement, combined with the following text from Alessandro Michele, the Creative Director of Gucci (the show’s sponsor), heavily implies that the ordinary men’s suit is a symbol of toxic masculinity imposed by a patriarchal society:

In a patriarchal society, masculine gender identity is often moulded by violently toxic stereotypes. A dominant, winning oppressive masculine model is imposed on babies at birth …. Any possible reference to femininity is aggressively banned … therefore it seems necessary to suggest a desertion, away from patriarchal plans and uniforms.

To hammer the point home, the first exhibit, by designer Craig Green, deconstructs the traditional suit and hangs its fragments from a metal frame encasing a mannequin.

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Installation view of Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The resulting show is a loosely chronological examination of varying examples of “shifting modes for portraying masculine style” throughout history, along with contemporary examples inspired by the historic. In practice, the contemporary examples present multiple different modes, negating any potential for cohesion. Woven (no pun intended) throughout is an agenda championing gender and sexual fluidity in line with the progressive attitudes espoused by today’s fashion and art worlds. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with doing this, except when its execution is at such expense of historical and curatorial integrity. That the curators, Claire Wilcox and Rosalind McKever, have cherry picked the V & A’s collection for historic items, often sans context and presented through the filter of contemporary ideals, effectively renders the display ahistorical. A typical example is Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature “Young Man Among Roses” (c. 1587), paired with a Gucci suit from 2017, whose caption states, “the roses entwining [the young man] travel through time and onto the floral jacquard and embroidery of this Gucci suit.” How convenient that Hilliard painted time-traveling roses.

The troubles start with the first section’s focus on ancient sculpture and its influence on menswear, notably the Apollo Belvedere (here represented by a plaster cast), to represent the interplay of the ideal male body with drapery, “neither completely nude or clothed.” Nowhere does the caption mention that the classical world considered nudity divine, while civilian depictions remained generally clothed — a key factor in understanding the ancient significance of nudity. Yet we are given the generalized statement that subsequent tailors “have drawn comparisons between the Apollo and men wearing shirts which folded the body in swathed, ruched and pleated cloth.” The curators’ opinions on other ancient eras in British menswear, say Anglo Saxon dress, are apparently irrelevant. Nearby, three 21st-century designs are modeled by mannequins posed like the antique Three Graces sculpture, on the basis that “menswear designers are embracing fluidity and transparency … their work [echoing] the drapery in classical depictions of ‘The Three Graces.’” There is zero definitive link between the original sculpture and the clothes; moreover, the curators’ decision to dress the female Graces group in menswear made from the traditionally feminine materials of organza and taffeta is done expressly to support the designer JW Anderson’s statement that “gender neutral is not a trend, it’s a reality.” The statement is fine, but actively manipulating a historic sculpture to perpetuate an unrelated contemporary ideal is not. 

Installation view of Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the same section are homoerotic 20th-century artworks by David Hockney and George Platt Lynes, the former an etching and aquatint of an entirely nude male, and the latter a photograph of Bernard Perlin modeling a white shirt with dark tie, a “masculine form ripe for subversion.” Some further background behind the tie and why it is ripe for subversion would not have gone amiss, but as for Hockney’s nude one can only assume it is present so the curators can deploy homoeroticism or homosexuality as another arrow against patriarchal society.

In the same vein, an interesting juxtaposition between a work by transgender artist Cassils and Rodin’s “The Age of Bronze” is not about clothing at all, but rather nudity and gender. In Cassils’s video piece “Tiresias,” named after the Greek myth in which a man is transformed into a woman for several years, the artist uses their body heat to melt a neoclassical male torso made of ice. Alongside it, Rodin’s nude, we are told, “reanimated the most sensual extremes of the classical body and Michelangelo’s male nudes.” Yes, and? It is worth noting that “The Age of Bronze” and several of the classical sculptures are from the V & A’s collections and thus feel too convenient a presence; surely the exhibition’s thesis, rather than the museum’s existing coffers, should dictate the selection of works. In terms of relevance to menswear, again it is implicit that gender fluidity — and the freedom to express it — is an antidote to the “toxic masculinity” condemned at the start. If this is the curators’ message, it should be more clearly stated.

Installation view of Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The same mentality may inform the presence of several historical works seemingly chosen to tick boxes of gender role reversal and cross dressing. A 1664 portrait of Frances Stewart by Jacob Huysmans shows the female sitter dressed in male soldierly attire. A c. 1615 portrait of Dudley, 3rd Baron North shows the musician and poet at King James I’s court in menswear that is “as embellished and voluminous as womenswear.” For good measure the caption also states “this painting may have been one of those that inspired Versace’s 1992 womenswear collection.” “May” is not a strong enough verb when arguing for such historical influences. An astonishing 1773-74 Reynolds portrait shows Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellamont dressed in what would be seen today as high camp: excessively billowing drapery, enormous plumaged headgear, and hilariously pendulous tassels hanging down over the crotch. That the caption describes this figure as a “pompous and inveterate womanizer” is perhaps intended to provoke a sense of irony based on the curators’ assumptions about viewers’ biases. Marlene Dietrich’s deliberately androgynous suit also appears, a rare — possibly the show’s only — example of an outfit designed for a female wearer. Given the overall focus on fluidity performed by men, including women adopting male dress in one or two examples muddies the waters and hints at a similarly vast gender experience excluded by this show. Will we get this in a part two?

Judging by the visitors in creatively elaborate costume, filming themselves strutting their stuff (presumably for the socials), it is clear that this show has hit home with an audience comfortable with its message of freedom of sexuality, gender, and expression. Yet it approaches its historical artifacts retroactively through the prism of this agenda, communicated by implication instead of explicit and thoroughly researched arguments. It is not simply a dispassionate study of changing fashions through time, as the title suggests. Yet the emphasis on gender fluidity (from a male perspective) and feminine-coded clothing presents a narrow and paradoxically male-centric opposition to toxic masculinity, and one that trades to some extent on gay male stereotypes. For an exhibition so dedicated to promoting a spectrum of gender and sexuality, this is ironically a very binary approach. Returning to Gucci’s opening statement against toxicity, its supporting such a show, while perpetuating an industry that remains notoriously toxic, feels queasily like virtue signaling. In this respect, one could argue that the absence of any discussion regarding body positivity and movement away from the skinny ideal — perpetuated almost militantly by the designs on show — presents an uncomfortably enormous elephant in the room.

Installation view of Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, London, England) through November 6. The exhibition was curated by Claire Wilcox and Rosalind McKever.


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