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Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015

Reigning Men Exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Reigning Men Exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Reigning Men Exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Written by
Centre for Fashion Curation
Published date
01 March 2018

    Earlier this year (2016) Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) presented Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015, one of the most ambitious and historically comprehensive menswear exhibitions of recent times. Jeffrey Horsley, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Fashion Curation, visited the exhibition and spoke to the curators, Sharon Sadako Takeda, Senior Curator and Department Head, Costume and Textiles and Kaye Durland Spilker, Curator, Costume and Textiles.

    Jeffrey Horsley (JH): The first thing I want to ask is: what made you feel that this was the right time to stage a menswear exhibition?

    Kaye Spilker (KS): It was less a matter of it being the right time than, back in 2006 or 2007 when we bought in a beautiful, rather large European menswear and womenswear collection, that we were pretty astounded by the menswear. So we thought then ‘well, we’ve never done a menswear exhibition…this is the time…the next show’s going to be menswear.’

    Sharon Takeda (ST): Also realizing that it wasn’t just us…but a lot of our colleagues in major museums have neglected menswear. You know we always focus on the women. In fact when we first marked down the idea, I think I said ‘oh my god, this show’s going to be all blue, brown, black, grey’ and we thought about punctuating it with womenswear in order to introduce some life and colour! We soon realized that wasn’t necessary at all. I think we were just lucky that it hit at the right time…

    KS: …at a time when men are also very interested in fashion.

    ST: We actually thought we might have missed the boat!

    JH: The exhibition covers themes such as Revolution/Evolution, Body Consciousness and The Splendid Man…what made you decide to take a thematic approach to the exhibition?

    ST: There are many, many museums that have extraordinary pieces and better collections than we do. So what we do is look at how we can excel or make a mark, how we interpret or how we use the collection.

    KS: That’s why, when we thought about it, we didn’t want to do a chronological exhibition. So from the outset we said we wanted to do it thematically. And there was another idea too which was to juxtapose contemporary and historic material – and it’s been amazing how positively people have responded to that approach.

    JH: I can understand that. When you see the stylistic connections between an 18th or 19th century item and something very recent it makes you look closely to see when the pieces were created and also how they are similar and how they are different. And I noticed, within the main themes, that you use juxtapositions to create really fascinating micro-narratives – like the Vetra boiler suit from the 1930s and the 3.1 Phillip Lim flight suit from 2010…I see that yes, it’s a thematic structure, but actually it’s more complex.

    ST: We’ve done a number of fashion exhibitions that have been thematic and the first thing we do is to lay out photographs of our collection to see what connections we can make… and then, you know… move things around. The same piece could be in multiple themes. Our idea is to locate something where it makes most sense or is most powerful…

    KS: …and where it’s aesthetically suited – because we’re an art museum.

    JH: I was interested in how the context of the art museum shapes your curatorial practice? So are you led by an aesthetic approach?

    KS: I think we apply the same criteria as our colleagues in European Art or Contemporary Art…we apply the same principles…colour…form. I guess you could think of garments as being kinnetic sculpture…frequently we think about that kind of thing. That’s important to us…both of us are artists..we started off as artists…so I think our ‘eye’ might be different from someone who approaches from a dress historical perspective.

    JH: And from an aesthetic perspective is it important to present a complete ‘look’…to show a silhouette in its entirety?

    ST: With historic menswear, in particular, there are certain ideas that visitors aren’t so familiar with. So we had to piece outfits together…sometimes creating props that would show the whole look because I think that’s important to understanding how men dressed. And I think that’s something European museums don’t often do? The shoes, for example…we had copies made of 18th century shoes so that we could show authentic buckles…

    KS: …in some cases, you have to drill through the shoe to stand the mannequin and you don’t want to drill an 18th century shoe! Sometimes it’s a very practical issue.

    ST: Most of the props we had made were accessories…shoes, stockings, stocks…and if it’s a prop, it’s not on the label….it’s not published. But if it’s authentic, it’s in the information text in the gallery and the publication.

    JH: It came across so clearly that the motivation to present a complete look was very strong and I noticed that a couple of the contemporary looks combined items from different designers. There’s one mannequin that has a Burberry trench with a McQueen suit, for instance…

    KS: …well that’s how people dress – do you make sure all your labels match when you go out! With the 18th and 19th century pieces, it’s true, that probably those pants might not have been worn with that same tailcoat. But they’re right together…and if they’re right, then it’s OK. With the contemporary items…they had to be current with each other….

    JH: …it’s really interesting for me to see those points of curatorial intervention. I’m picking them out because I did find them fascinating.

    KS: We did give a lot of consideration to the pros and cons of including props…and we made the decision that we’d rather show complete looks.

    JH: And in Reigning Men the hairstyles are obviously a key element in presenting a complete look…

    ST: We really wanted something different. So we asked a friend of ours who knows a lot of film craftspeople and she turned us on to Deborah Ambrosino, a trained milliner who works in the movie business. So we brought her in and we talked about the project and she agreed to produce some samples…a couple of key 18th and 19th century styles. I forget who came up with the idea of using interfacing fabrics…but we thought that if she could manipulate those, that would be pretty amazing because they form the basis of men’s tailoring. We had her do some samples of pretty extraordinary styles that referenced period fashion plates…

    KS: …we used to send her all the references, paintings, fashion illustrations, runway photographs…

    ST: ..you know the Jean Paul Gaultier bondage suit came down the runway styled with a huge afro…and she reproduced that. Really she’s an artist in the way she makes and manipulates the fabrics using different techniques. The Napoleonic curls……

    JH: …and the Teddy Boy quiff! It’s actually the contemporary pieces that I really started looking at it. The hairstyle for the Hedi Slimane Yves Saint Laurent piece is really accurate…

    KS: We gave her runway shots and she just translated them…

    ST: …and it did take her two years working between different movie projects.

    JH: Another important aesthetic aspect of the exhibition is the design of the galleries.

    ST: Commune, our exhibition designers, took this contemporary box…with high ceilings and white walls…and they installed differently styled cornices in each room to bring the ceiling height down and frame the mannequins and make the gallery a more comfortable space.

    JH: I think the design is very discreet…you’re conscious of the change of colour in each room and the cornices when you look up but they’re not distracting. Also, I was very struck by the island plinths in the centre of each room…I don’t know if it was intentional…but the central groups almost seemed to sum up the themes of each space gallery?

    STCommune would really love that you noticed that! Because the first room had so many mannequins in it they suggested that we should put the most salient pieces – the ones that most clearly represent the theme – in the centre.

    KS: One of the reasons we chose Commune was that they have done some interesting boutiques so we knew they would understand working with mannequins.

    ST: One of the principles actually worked for Barneys years ago in New York. And yes, they have done designer boutiques, but they have also done interiors for restaurants and private homes…although this was their first museum show, so it was challenging for them, too.

    JH: The design allows for most of the objects to be on open display…and not having glass cases gives so much freedom to position and group the mannequins. It’s extraordinary to come into a fashion exhibition and have that kind of access.

    KS: We do have a member of staff in every room and all the items on open display are placed out of reach… everybody really, I think, understands textiles better when they can see them without glass…

    ST: …and we allow people to take photographs! It is a luxury to display costume without glass and we were able to do that because 90% of the items come from our collection…and we tried to find lenders that would allow us not to use display cases. And our conservators are in there every week or so to keep everything clean…

    KS: We’ve done a lot of costume shows with open display and we have never had anything stolen or damaged…

    JH: Visitors are obviously enjoying the exhibitions and the opportunity to see the items on open display…have you had any feedback on visitor figures or visitor response yet? And how do the visitor figures for Reigning Men compare with other shows you’ve done that were womenswear?

    ST: I think by now we’ve had around 50,000 visitors but it’s hard to tell [final visitor figures topped 107,000]. Unlike our previous shows it’s a ticketed show so people have to pay $25. This is the first ticketed fashion exhibition we’ve done…

    KS: …this one is ticketed because it coincides with the Mapplethorpe show…so we’re doing a two-for-one deal.

    SK: We’ve had amazing social media coverage…half a million people following us…because visitors can take photographs and post them online…and the catalogue is outselling the Mapplethorpe book…

    JH: …which, to me, gives a strong impression that people are really interested in menswear…

    ST: … a lot of journalists asked me ‘why produce a menswear show now when everyone’s wearing jeans and T-shirts?’… you know that Silicon Valley look…but I think men today are dressing themselves more than any other time in history and are more interested in fashion…

    JH: …and spending more. In the UK 2016 is projected to be the first time when growth in menswear sales exceeds women’s…

    ST: …someone told me that Thom Browne said ‘I lift the hem of the trouser and there’s an earthquake…’ He’s one of the designers approaching men’s fashion as a clean, blank slate…and some really interesting designers are getting into menswear…really playing with it. Like Thom said about menswear…’There’s not much you need to do to be really different.’