Book Review: Reigning Men: Fashion In Menswear
Sharon Sadako Takeda, Kaye Durland Spilker and Clarissa M. Esguerra, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015, Prestel, $55, 272 pp., April 2016.
Does the overwhelming paucity of menswear objects in fashion collections ever disturb you? The dearth of plus fours and zoot suits in museums has certainly prompted some sleepless nights in my house. I recall being in grad school and working on an assignment – a hypothetical exhibition – in which I had to identify X amount of fashion objects from real collections that could be assembled into full looks that would appropriately demonstrate the period and style I had selected. Had I been smart rather than simply ambitious, I probably would have chosen almost any genre of womenswear, instead of trying to create an exhibition around early 20th century menswear. I had a devil of a time reconstructing full ensembles of typical, everyday menswear that I could piece together from multiple collections, let alone locating publications that covered the subject thoroughly and with examples of historic dress rather than pages full of illustrations or old-timey photographs. I suppose I find it terribly ironic that in the current male-centric fashion climate there is such a severe lack of attention to the saving and storage of menswear in museum collections.
Earlier this spring, I attended and reviewed Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015, an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that was, much to my delight, an ode to the garments worn by men and their influence on and contributions to fashion. While the exhibition was a sorely needed addition to the canon of menswear focused fashion exhibitions, the accompanying publication is a welcome addition to the anthology of reference materials for historians and curators who trade in this subject matter.
Following the exhibition, the book is also organized thematically by the five principal themes: Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, The Splendid Man, and by subsections that fall within each. This book does more than simply catalog the contents of the exhibition, though, as it was designed and intended to be a survey of menswear through objects and fashion examples instead of a chronology via images. It compiles the finest examples of every major menswear look of the past 300 years, further embellishing the thematic sections with smartly selected contextual materials that reinforce the curators’ choices in creating the ensembles. Well-placed photographs of Teddy Boys in their signature jackets and cheeky illustrations of undergraduates in Oxford bags, to name a few, are peppered throughout the book offering a more complete impression of how these garments fit into their contemporary cultural surroundings.
Photos of full ensembles are, of course, gorgeous, not to mention of an adequate size to give the reader a full impression of silhouette, pattern, and craftsmanship. There are also wonderful close-up shots of details from a number of the pieces that take a closer look at exquisite embroidery, intentional distressing techniques, and even tailoring that even I overlooked while attending the exhibition. Each chapter contains brief, but provocative blurbs that accompany almost every ensemble, including discussions of the contributions of specific menswear designers, fascinating historical tidbits regarding particular styles, and even biographical profiles that illuminate the influence of specific individuals throughout history. For example, in the Revolution/Evolution chapter, the Zoot Suit is highlighted in a mini essay that discusses possible origins of the style and provides an explanation as to how tailors went about creating the exaggerated volume and proportions of the oversized trousers and jackets preferred by “Zoot Suiters” of the 1930s.
In the spirit of making this tome more than simply an exhibition catalog, included is a helpful glossary of menswear-specific terminology and a robust bibliography that would make The Sartorialist blush. In addition to the theoretical and historical underpinnings provided in the contextualizing essays by the curators of this exhibition, thoughtful musings from reputable sources Peter McNeil and Tim Blanks are most welcome. McNeil, whose writing you may recognize from other menswear exhibition catalogs like Ivy Style, and Blanks, current editor-at-large of The Business of Fashion, are trusted voices in this arena and have both contributed essays to this book that, respectively, delve deeper into the themes explored by this exhibition. McNeil’s essay takes the tone and general structure of a historical treatise on the evolution of menswear, albeit a mini-version. He discusses briefly, but relatively thoroughly, the alterations of men’s clothing styles and attitudes about fashion between the time of the French Revolution in 1798 to the early-20th century. Much to my pleasure, the essay features small photos of full ensembles from the exhibition and the piece is further accompanied by a wonderful works cited list. Blanks’ essay is equally peppered with appropriate imagery to support his assertions, but is about half the length of McNeil’s and takes a much more focused look at a particular branch of the menswear tree- the uniform.
This comprehensive book enhances and reinforces the intents and purposes of Reigning Men, the exhibition, and stands alone as a broad, but discerning, look at 300 years of men’s fashion. Perhaps what distinguishes it best from other exhibition catalogs is that it is inclusive of everything that was in the show and has the benefit of including supplemental materials rather than relying on them to take up space. It navigates beautifully for the curious enthusiast and the die-hard expert, both of whom ultimately want the same thing: an informative and abundantly photo-heavy compendium of menswear knowledge. Reigning Men is a beautifully laid out book that surely belongs on everyone’s, from the roving academic to the most astute of fashion historian’s, shelf.
You can read Marley's full exhibition review, which she wrote for the Centre for Fashion Curation at UAL, here!