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Clothing the masculine body in the past 300 years has been in turns ornate and somber, sometimes constructed for leisure but nearly always for function. In his latest exhibition in conjunction with the Fondazione Pitti Immagine Discovery, ROMANZO BREVE DI MODA MASCHILE (A Short Novel on Men’s Fashion), Olivier Saillard proposes that after centuries of sartorial bondage, finally, menswear is free.
The temporary exhibition is installed at Palazzo Pitti Museo della Moda e del Costume: Florence’s (and Italy’s) growing permanent collection of fashion. On display are menswear garments donated and purchased for the collection from key designers who have shown at the fashion trade show Pitti Uomo in the past 30 years.
In his opening treatise, unfurled like an oversized manuscript in the foyer of the exhibition Saillard writes that, until the mid 20th century, men had to “conform to the authority” bestowed upon them, donning “inflexible trousers” which meant that “man could not swagger”. In the following 19 rooms he uses literary quotes, historical garments from the museum collection, and selections from the Uffizi’s Gallery of Modern Art to offer a direct riposte to this suggested rigidity.
Saillard has focused on injecting movement into unworn clothing, reinstalling the kineticism of life into garments removed from the body, without the aid of traditional mannequins. The result in A Short Novel on Men’s Fashion is that someone has just left the room; a half-crumpled suit displayed on the floor, a pair of trousers thrown over a rail, wrinkles intact. This doesn’t imply a lack of care (though Saillard does directly quote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s scene of carelessly thrown bespoke shirts in his novel The Great Gatsby) but rather the speed with which contemporary menswear can be shucked and left behind for the next big piece. Set against the glass cases holding 18th and 19th century frock coats, it places these contemporary garments firmly in the here and now, while also considering whether they will ever be deemed fit to be enclosed in a reverential casing of their own.
It is immediately poetic to place menswear, not traditionally held up as examples of fashion in the way of womenswear, on display in the ornate silk covered walls of a former Medici palace. However, one of the more affecting aspects of this exhibition comes from the modern paintings selected to hang among the clothing. Often on a side wall, obscured by the garments or mounts, there are some beautiful portraits of men wearing the clothing that Saillard suggests limited the male experience of the world. This includes the arresting Portrait of Piero Milani (1914) by Massimiliano Corcos. Staring with a smirk at the visitor, hands thrust in the pockets of his fashionable suit, Milani’s overcoat and hat are tossed on the table behind him, his glove has fallen to the ground.
This vivid portrayal of the push-pull of dressing the modern masculine body (projecting a refined image while simultaneously challenging the notion of vanity) encapsulates what Saillard outlines in his opening words yet could pass almost unnoticed in competition with the clothing, cases and book-shaped mounts filling the same room.
With A Short Novel on Men’s Fashion, Olivier Saillard proposes to show how the past 30 years has seen the emancipation of menswear, freeing it from the strictures of formality and embracing the multitudes of masculine experience. While there is a debate to be had about how limited, exactly, men have been by their clothing, the strength of this exhibition is in showcasing the vitality of menswear and channeling the perpetual forward momentum of design.
ROMANZO BREVE DI MODA MASCHILE[A SHORT NOVEL ON MEN’S FASHION]1989-2019: Thirty years of menswear as seen by Pitti UomoFlorence – Palazzo Pitti(Sale della galleria del Costume, Sale Contini Bonacossi) 11 June – 29 September 2019.
Curated by Olivier Saillard.
Text and images by Cyana Madsen.