“Fashioning Masculinities,” the V&A’s New Show, Proves That Gender Has Always Been a Construct

It’s a visual shock to enter the last room. “Redress” refers to the time in the 19th century when menswear turned black, sober, and narrowed, almost to a uniform. A cabinet full of black frock coats and suits from Edwardian times to the present day makes you realize that the sinister power of this highly segregated gendered style must have arrived with the might of capitalism and the industrial revolution. We’re still living with that, really. The love/hate relationship with the tailored men’s suit means it’s been continually under subversive reconstruction by fashion designers, including Alexander McQueen’s sharp satire on homosexual perversity lying beneath the Savile Row suit of 2009, a half-cutaway jacket and waistcoat, from whose hip hangs a single women’s stocking suspender. He called it “The McQueensbury Rules.”

It’s a pity that this exhibition doesn’t have any of the oversized things that Demna Gvasalia has done with menswear tailoring at Vetements or Balenciaga. If ever there was a warning in fashion-form about toxic masculinity and the malign power of its perpetrators, that’s surely it. But I keep returning to Queen Victoria’s fig leaf—symbolically, the first maleness-covering ‘garment’ in the exhibition. And it strikes me as something—not discussed by this show, but absolutely visible—that there were centuries upon centuries, from the middle ages through the 18th century, when European menswear fashion for men in power just kept pointing at the penis. It exaggerated it with swelling Elizabethan and Jacobean doublets and hose, and completely outlined it with cutaway coats that set off embroidered plackets on skin-tight 18th century pantaloons. The Incroyables in France and Beau Brummell dandies were satirized by cartoonists for their corseting and groin-centric trouser display.

And then, when suits came in, male genitalia completely disappeared from sight. With 19th and 20th century capitalism, it hid, safely tailored away, while men got on with causing, funding, and waging two world wars. It popped out again, briefly, during the so-called sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early ’70s, yes. But with the 1980s—and the dominance of the Wall Street suit, and even with what Giorgio Armani did to break down tailoring to a new, cool state of loucheness—the fashionably outlined penis went in again. And it’s never really come out since. Instead, the butt has, for 30 years—ever since hip-hop and McQueen’s bumsters hit in the late 1980s/early ’90s. Granted, the bulge has cropped up once in overground fashion recently—in the cross-laced underwear and jeans that young Ludovic de Saint Sernin has so successfully made his signature. But that is it.

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