Fashion and clothing have long been considered a communication tool that is an outward expression of one’s individuality. Throughout history, fashion has been an indicator of social status, origins, and most importantly gender. The contemporary questioning of gender norms has led to numerous deconstructive investigations of fashion role in cementing gender identities. Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear traces how menswear has been fashioned and refashioned over the centuries. It is the first major V&A exhibition to celebrate the diversity of masculine attire and fashion. The London exhibition is a comparative narrative that juxtaposes 100 looks and 100 artworks to tell the story of the performance of masculinity. Curated by Claire Wilcox and Rosalind McKever, it is a combination of work by fashion designers and historical artworks from the V&A collection.
Classical sculptures, Renaissance paintings, iconic photographs, and powerful film and contemporary artworks by Robert Longo, and Yinka Shonibare CBE constitute the art that is featured in the show. Looks by Gucci, Harris Reed, Grace Wales Bonner and Raf Simons, showcases versions of masculinities across the centuries from the Renaissance to the global contemporary. Commissioned to develop the creative concept for this landmark show is the architectural studio, JA Projects. In addition to chronicling the history of men’s fashion, JA Projects’ exhibition design uses colour, lighting and materials to elaborate on how fashion represented and reinforced power structures across time, gender and race. Outfits worn by David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich, both known for their iconic tryst with gendered clothing, are featured in the show. Other notable outfits include Timothée Chalamet’s sequinned Haider Ackermann suit that he wore to the Dune premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The finale installation consists of three iconic gowns worn by Billy Porter, Harry Styles and Bimini Bon Boulash, displayed along with a monumental film by Quentin Jones with Cadence Films. In an interview with STIR, Jayden Ali, founder of JA Projects, elaborates on the exhibition design and how the studio chose to use the platform as an opportunity to explore our contemporary social contexts.
Devanshi Shah: How did you develop the creative concept in relation to the curatorial note?
Jayden Ali: The development of the project is really interesting. Evonne Mackenzie, the Head of Design, approached us around December of 2020. Funnily enough, I wasn’t sure if it was a real request at first! She thought we would be a good fit from having seen our shortlisted pitch for the 2020 British Pavilion in Venice. There’s definite overlaps between the two projects which we took into ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ — such as a shared concern around understanding the audience as a performer, putting forward questions around representation, having fun with classical proportions, offering a provocative reimagination of a grand country house, and commenting on the city.
We gave careful consideration to how the sequencing of spaces could tell an expansive story across historic periods and themes of the V&A’s collection. We were keen to create the right conditions for the garments to be understood in context, but also to tease out how they could speak to visitors today. The exhibition design was an opportunity to foster a dialogue between objects, allowing the space for criticality and reverence. Right from the outset, we wanted to unpick and play with notions of masculinity itself, and to explore the boundaries of gender identity itself. Here, different kinds of bodies take the stage as does the full spectrum of male identities.
Devanshi: Could you elaborate on how lighting and typography worked in tandem with the overall concept to create the visual language of the exhibition’s design?
Jayden: We led the overall design of the show, and collaborated with Studio ZNA on the lighting design, and with Studio Hugo Blanzat for the graphic design. Our ambition was that the lighting and typography would work together to create a feast of moods and experiences. The design language of the exhibition’s design plays with these different aspects of clarity, exuberance and rebellion that the objects embody.
The lighting establishes narratives and counter-narratives through the exhibition. We were very conscious about what would be highlighted and hidden. This happens through jewel-like pockets of light that invite specific views and frame objects clearly, and at other times, counterpoints are offered through atypical glimpses into other sections. Beams of light create divisions which we then allow to dissolve; elsewhere, shadow and silhouettes direct attention. Together, this emphasises the spatial and performative feeling of the installation. We really wanted each visitor to the museum to feel like an active player in the space.
For the typography, there’s a bespoke typeface family that evolves through the exhibition. It dissolves and bulges to match the curatorial themes of each section, but shares a common base and skeleton to bring everything together.
Devanshi: What are some of the ways in which the exhibition design highlights the value of fashion in understanding the power structures?
Jayden: The exhibition design is, at its core, about power, and we have weaved a complex story through every detail — big and small. A number of points subvert and tease out alternatives to the expectations visitors to the exhibition may bring with them. We are changing who — and how — certain bodies are expected to take the stage. The first section, Undressed, explores how classical antiquity has influenced European ideals of masculinity. We surrounded the airy space with monumental sculptural forms to evoke a classical sense of proportions and ideals, yet challenged ecocentric ideas of masculine beauty through an oversized depiction of Black bodies.
This train of thought continues into the second section quite clearly. Overdressed explores a theatrical approach to a grand country home, but we weren’t afraid to have fun with the theatricality of the scene: a melange of rich colours, plush materials and a playful approach to scale and taste. We make a literal big statement by putting Yinka Shonibare’s photograph Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 17.00 hours opposite a 10ft billiards table. It is an ode to Shonibare’s self portrait, depicting a Black man with a physical disability empowered through dress according to the fashions and conventions of 19th century high society.
Devanshi: Why “Piazza to Pizzazz”? What about these two words capture the essence of the design concept?
Jayden: The ‘piazza’ responds to entering the Amanda Levett designed courtyard, and the ‘pizzazz’ reflects our ambition to project the glitz and glamour of the fashion industry within the show itself. The idea of moving from Piazza to Pizazz is about creating a captivating narrative across sequences, with each moment immersing the visitor in a mesmerising display of light, sound, stunning objects and incredible garments.
We want to celebrate and challenge the context the garments come from, and are drawing on our experience from fashion, events, performance, architecture, graphics, lighting and sound to do so. In many ways the exhibition design as a whole is a love letter to the museum, particularly in this moment. As the restrictions of the pandemic give away to a renewed sense of optimism, we wanted to speak to how much many people missed visiting museums and sharing culture together. This energy shaped a lot of our thinking.
Devanshi: How was the visual identities of the three sections, Undressed, Overdressed and Redressed determined?
Jayden: For Undressed, we thought an interesting way to begin was by establishing the visitor’s awareness of their own body — within the collection, and the space itself. As the visitors enter, they are embraced by the warm skin tones and sculptural forms that allude to classical proportions and representation, but also make reference to the plurality of human form. Creating space for the contemporary visitors was an important statement about what the exhibition is trying to achieve.
For Overdressed, which touches on themes of flamboyance, we wanted to make the visitor feel like another guest at a luxurious ball. In this section of the exhibition, the journey takes you through a dressing room, a glasshouse, a lounge, a billiards room, until you emerge into a country garden. Thematic threads unite the rooms, with the stories behind the various garments expressed along the personality of the wearers. You can see this happen materially, where often what appears solid and monolithic reveals itself to be supple and sinuous on closer inspection.
Scale shifts quite significantly in the third section, Redressed. We are into the city for this part, and allude to a variety of architectural spaces: the street, the arcade, the office, the factory. As a reference to the arcade glazing of 19th century Paris, many softly illuminated panels combine to create a vast experience. Against this dramatic backdrop, we celebrate the most recognisably iconic yet often maligned masculine garment: the suit. And subtle material choices also play on previous parts of the exhibition. The use of glass is a nod to the classical use of sand and stone, as it’s a literal transformation from one to the other.
Devanshi: Considering the static nature of mannequins, how did you / JA Projects work to bring the overarching narrative to life?
Jayden: Sound was always a big deal for us from the beginning. Each space has a balance of reflective and absorbent materials in order to make the sound immersive, and if you listen carefully, you might notice how the soundscape becomes more and more dense as you move through the exhibition space.
Dynamism is hardcoded into each space. The curtains in the first and third section are a solid example, as are the prominent projections of film works, too. Visitors are greeted by a Matthew Bourne work on arrival, and there’s a giant Quentin Jones in the finale. We really wanted to make the most of these moments.