Review: V&A Gets Manly With A Muscly And Gender-Fluid Fashion Exhibition

Fashioning Masculinities, V&A. ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 9 months ago

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Review: V&A Gets Manly With A Muscly And Gender-Fluid Fashion Exhibition Fashioning Masculinities, V&A. 4
Masculinity is very fluid as seen at V&A. Copyright V&A.

Do clothes make the man? Or is it muscles? Or is it frilly collars and cuffs? The V&A has got them all in this exhibition on the evolution of men's fashion through art and clothes over the centuries.

Think Tilda Swinton was pioneering when she broke out a tux, or Harry Styles with his penchant for feminine clothes? While both their clothing choices are on display in this show, their gender non-conformity is trumped by a painting of Frances Stewart from the 17th century. She posed in the wigs and clothes of the men around her in the court of Charles II — I had to read the label to be sure I was looking at a painting of a woman.

Botanical motifs have come in and out of men's fashion over the centuries. Copyright V&A.

Pink was originally seen as a man's colour, as it was an expensive dye to make and therefore signified wealth, long before it became associated with baby girls. Now it's coming back into style, with outfits for men in millennial pink shades, seen here facing off with a painting by Joshua Reynolds of an Earl in a flowing pink cape from 250 years ago. It turns out fashion really does come in waves, it just goes back a lot further than we thought — while contemporary fashion houses may be breaking new ground, they're doing it by standing on the shoulder pads of history.  

It wouldn't be a fashion exhibition without some killer outfits, and it delivers on that front, with jazzy floral numbers, sleek tuxedos, and an eye-catching two piece suit with floral shoulders and a pink-lined cape by Randi Rahm, guaranteed to turn heads wherever it's worn.  

Sometimes clothes aren't even needed. Copyright V&A.

The show opens with very little clothing at all, focusing on underwear and how classical nudes from antiquity right through to Action Man and GI Joe have defined what the ideal man looks like — there are six packs and ripped bodies aplenty. It's a revealing opening room that uses the homoerotic drawings of artist Tom of Finland to show how idealised body types have impacted gay culture. It's disappointing not to see anything wider about the pressures on men to conform to certain body shapes, given that the same pressure on women rightly gets a lot of coverage in fashion.

While I would have liked to see the show being less dominated by Western fashion, there's still enough diversity here to keep the fashionistas and the history buffs intrigued — the contemporary fashion may be the most eye-catching elements of the show, but it's the stories of how and why men's fashion has evolved over the ages that adds the necessary layers to keep us intellectually warm throughout.  

Fashioning Masculinities is on at V&A until 6 November 2022. Tickets are £20 for adults.

Last Updated 17 March 2022