But one look at the new Reigning Men exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum – which includes everything from bouffy French Revolution-era sans-culottes, to the rare (and very humorous looking) zoot suit – and you’ll understand high-fashion menswear is, and always has been, more than smoking jackets and tailored pants.
Fresh from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the exhibition includes more than 130 outfits spanning 300 years of men’s fashion, beginning around the 18th century French Revolution. Notably, the curation – much of which has been replicated from LACMA’s original vision – eschews chronology in favour of themes (East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, The Splendid Man and Revolution/Evolution). The result is rooms filled with dandyish double-breasted tailcoats alongside punkish tartan trousers worn with Doc Marten boots. A whole section is dedicated almost exclusively to the thong swimsuit.
“We’ve presented it in a slightly different physical space, but all the presentation of the clothes is exactly how LACMA envisioned it,” says MAAS senior curator Roger Leong. “Our museum booked the exhibition when we heard about it while it was still in development, before it even opened in LA. We recognised it was a unique opportunity to showcase something that hadn’t been done to this level before. “The sheer quality of the clothes is exceptional, and the variety is also incredible. There are some really rare pieces, like French-revolutionary dress, which is nearly impossible to get your hands on. Even in France they don’t have pieces like this. There are things like a zoot suit, which I’d never seen in person. Despite being so legendary, very few exist in public collections.”
For the sake of authenticity, these outfits have been fully styled by the curatorial team at LACMA, which has created tattooed mannequins and mohawk hairstyles.
“The curators and conservators at LACMA have tried to find original accessories where possible, but where they haven’t they’ve actually hand-sewn and handcrafted accessories especially,” says Leong.
Household names including Tom Ford, Raf Simons, Alexander McQueen, Dries van Noten and Craig Green are all present and accounted for, and so are more left-of-centre designers including the avant-garde Walter Van Beirendonck. The latter is responsible for one of Leong’s favourite items in the collection: an eccentric coat inspired by a post-French Revolutionary style of dress.
“I would also have to nominate the Macaroni,” says Leong of his personal highlights. “The Macaroni is a mint-green suit that is cut very tightly and worn with an orange-pink waistcoat with gold brocade. It was worn by these very stylish young men who wore an exaggerated style of clothing in the 18th century, and who were kind of like the peacocks of their day.”
To complement this heavily Euro-centric vision of men’s fashion, MAAS has lent a broad range of Australian menswear from its own extensive fashion archive. As part of Reigning Men, a select number of these garments will be on display in a section called Australian Men’s Style.
“This is a really rare opportunity to see some incredible pieces,” says Leong. “There’s definitely been an evolution of fashion, but rather than chronological, it seems to go forward and back and forward and back and sideways. I think the real message to take away from this is that, because it mixes historic and contemporary, a man or a women can come to this exhibition and see the heritage of what they’re wearing today.”
Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715–2015 is open at the Powerhouse Museum from May 2 to October 14 2018.