REIGNING MEN: FASHION IN MENSWEAR 1715-2015, SHARON SADAKO TAKEDA, KAYE DURLAND SPILKER, CLARISSA ESGUERRA, PETER MCNEIL AND TIM BLANKS (2016)
Reviewed by Roberto Filippello, Edinburgh College of Art--University of Edinburgh
Munich, London and New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Prestel Verlag, 272 pp., ISBN: 3791355201, h/bk, [pounds sterling]22.75
Disengaging from any theoretical framework of masculinity grounded in essentialist paradigms, this exhibition catalogue, a fashion history book in itself, traces a compelling overview of menswear highlighting the multiple modes in which masculinity has been embodied and performed via dress from 1715 until the present. Accompanying the namesake exhibition held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from 10 April to 21 August 2016, the book/catalogue delineates a history of men's fashionable dress with the purpose of filling a gap in fashion research and museum exhibition-making, which have too often overlooked menswear in favour of women's dress. The new and riveting collection of men's pieces, standing out from the LACMA's 2007 extensive acquisition of European fashionable dress, had required curatorial assemblage and intellectual scrutiny: this book and the respective exhibit have fulfilled this need.
Pre-existing pictorial books on menswear have focused almost exclusively on the twentieth century and are structured diachronically by either era or, very arbitrarily, by designer, rather than by themes and styles as in 'Reigning Men', and thereby have not allowed scholars to investigate and pinpoint either the historical foundations or the design processes in which aesthetic phenomena are grounded. The book takes us on an unprecedented visual journey that questions the notion of linear history by shedding light on the cyclical temporality of fashion. Fashion, in fact, is quintessentially marked by cyclical change, which is reflected in the book structure and photographic editing: items of clothing from a certain historical period, in addition to being thoroughly captioned, are juxtaposed to their corresponding versions engineered and reformulated by contemporary designers. Such a visual and conceptual cross-referencing structure is itself the key for grasping the ever-shifting and yet historically saturated nature of fashion. For instance, an Indian cashmere lounge suit from the 1860s featured in the exhibition catalogue functions as the epitome of a dress style that nourished the travelling imagination of Dries Van Noten for his Fall/Winter 2013-14 collection, in which he showcased ensembles composed of textiles laden with ornate printed designs referencing the Indian motifs of that era; likewise, male tunics worn in the Indian royal courts during the nineteenth century were recovered by western designers such as Gilbert Feruch, Pierre Cardin and Oleg Cassini in the 1960s and were transmogrified into the so-called 'Nehru suit', which became a staple among musicians such as the Beatles.
No other book/catalogue on men's fashion has thus far so poignantly exemplified Walter Benjamin's theory of fashion. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History (Benjamin 1970), he seizes on the position and the role of fashion within history by construing it as a structural device merging the thesis of the classical ideal with its antithesis, i.e....
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