A British army uniform from World War II stands near a neon-colored top and pants, also in camouflage, designed by Jeremy Scott in 2013. Outfits covered in mother-of-pearl buttons made by 19th-century working-class Londoners face off against a pearl-button glen plaid jacket by Libertine’s Johnson Hartig, circa 2012. And a lavishly embroidered coat from the Napoleonic period teams with the ornate jacket it inspired for Raf Simons’s fall 2014 Christian Dior collection.
“Aspects of menswear have cycled back,” says Kaye Durland Spilker, the costume and textiles curator behind Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015, opening April 10 at LACMA. “Fashions that look very modern today actually arise from historic influences.” The museum’s first fashion-focused exhibition in five years features 200 looks, along with accessories, hairpieces, and even a tattoo by L.A. artist Mark Mahoney.
“The show examines how adventurous men, whom we consider archetypes in history, were arguably unfashionable in their day and yet manipulated the model to make things different,” says Spilker, who spotlights such groups as 1800s dandies, postwar Teddy Boys, and the peacocks and punks of the 1970s.
Among the show’s stereotype-shattering revelations: Men were not allowed to wear topless swimming suits until the 1930s, and an 18th-century gentleman’s evening coat was often metallic or adorned with jewels, the better to shimmer in the candlelight. In fact, the frills, florals, brilliant colors, and skirts and dresses adopted by males over the decades represent a surprisingly artistic range. “We are an art museum, not a costume museum,” says Spilker, “so we’re not necessarily interested in the trajectory of one designer. We’re interested in the same kind of criteria that you would apply to sculpture: color, form, and movement.”