For those who haven’t visited Manchester Art Gallery recently, give the Dandy Style Exhibition a visit. Fashion history has often been targeted with the female interest in mind, but the Dandy Style Exhibition has something to offer for the male gaze. This show explores how concepts such as elegance, uniformity, and spectacle have evolved over the last 250 years within the realm of men’s fashion and imagery.
Here are some of the most interesting finds of the Dandy Style Exhibition:
Sky blue silk damask banyan (1760-70)
One item that stuck out amongst the rest was the sky-blue silk damask banyan. Composed in the middle of the 18th century, a banyan can be considered today as a dressing gown for the fashionable and affluent. Although most recognised in the Palace of Versailles, it is based on the classic T-shape style found in Japanese kimonos. Back in the 18th century, it was often worn alongside a man’s suit breeches and a cap. It was customary to wear these gowns after a long day of business, to relax, dine, and more.
However, as seen in the picture above, it became more fashionable for these gowns to fit the body more tightly. What is most striking is the bright and fair colour of the gown. It is arguably rather feminine in comparison to today’s standards – we see muted colours taking trend, especially in men’s fashion.
But in the 18th century, if you were a wealthy aristocrat, bright colours and intricate patterns allowed you to display your wealth. As a result, wealth equates to power, and power equates to respect. The Manchester Art Gallery has a wide variety of banyans in different colours, styles, and patterns, depicted much better than this photo.
Vivienne Westwood striped suit (1991-2)
Lounge suits also took trend in the 90s, as shown in Westwood’s ‘Dressing Up Collection’ of Autumn/Winter 1991-2. Quite like the sky blue damask banyan, patterns are the key to creating impact. This is shown by the bold vertical red and silver stripes. The piece is adorned by Westwood’s branding on the breast pocket and the Sovereign’s Orb surrounded by Saturn’s ring.
Quintessentially British, in classic Vivienne Westwood fashion, the suit was praised for its innovation at the time. It breathed some creativity into male formal wear, which was (and still is) dominated by the jet-black suit and black tie. In light of the collection, Vivienne said that she “designs things to help people hopefully to express themselves.”
The narrative for men’s fashion has gradually grown less centred towards displays of wealth, but personal style. However, it is still blatantly obvious that ‘expression’ in this form was a privilege felt mostly by those who could afford it.
Horsley’s brown cotton suit jacket (1980s)
This piece shown in Manchester Art Gallery was not formally worn or played a particular role in men’s fashion, but it’s really cool. Made by artist Sebastian Horsley, this painted suit – like many other suits painted by Horsley – was once undecorated. That was until Horsley got bored, and wore them as ‘painting overalls’, hence the paint stains here and there.
The gallery mentions the ‘accidental’ and natural placement of the paint, as a result of Horsley’s artistic endeavours. However, it appears that the splodges of paint were predetermined meticulously and performatively to mimic an artist’s work outfit.
Red corded silk coat (1770-80)
Let’s go back in time once more. Purchased alongside the blue damask gown in 1960, this red-corded silk coat reveals the type of men who might’ve been able to afford such luxurious items of clothing. The coat is embroidered with silver thread and spangles in a floral design, again, likely worn as evening wear. Like before, the bold choice of colour was purposefully chosen to exude a sense of power.
According to Manchester Art Gallery, red has always been associated with power, as its intensity and richness in colour were difficult to source and thus were very expensive. A common thread throughout all of these items of clothing in the exhibition displays the wealth or domination of the individual.
Regardless, the Dandy Style Exhibition gives a glimpse of what societies in different time periods looked like. It’s not too late to give the Dandy Style Exhibition a look for yourself and delve into the wonders of men’s fashion.
The Dandy Style Exhibition is free entry at Manchester Art Gallery until May 1st 2023.