PRINT January 2020



Look from Adidas Originals × Jeremy Scott Fall/Winter 2013 collection. Installation view, University of Westminster, London, 2019.

EVEN AS RIHANNA promotes the nonbinary clothing line Art School and the critique of heteronormativity goes increasingly mainstream, masculinity is still permitted to present itself as a default. Gender may be performative, but one of the two binary roles is often unscrutinized. The timely exhibition “Invisible Men” not only platformed masculinity as its theme, but also queried this hiddenness and exposed its paradoxes. Displaying more than 180 garments from the Westminster Menswear Archive and juxtaposing nonbranded creations with the work of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Liam Hodges, Junya Watanabe, and other designers, the show offered a concise overview of some 120 years of masculinity’s sartorial expressions. Curators Andrew Groves and Danielle Sprecher selected pieces that demonstrate the complex, recursive relationship between men’s fashion and utilitarian clothing, for instance, high-viz working jackets and military uniforms. Row after row of headless mannequins, raised on long parallel platforms, marched through a cavernous concrete postindustrial space at the University of Westminster, illuminating what the exhibition text calls fashion’s “almost fetishistic appreciation of the working man in all his heroic iterations.”

Seafarers, firefighters, road workers, explorers: They were all there—but only as conspicuous absences, ghostly everymen who could be categorized but not identified through their clothing. Anonymity itself became a motif, or anti-motif. The labels for farmers’ breeches or hunting jackets at times read, MAKER UNKNOWN. It was impossible not to extrapolate, impossible not to reflect that one of the purposes of this clothing was also to convey the message “Wearer unknown.” But just as the stitches on garments not produced by a famous label speak to a specific hand, the lives of ordinary owners were also evoked through signs of mending and patching. Viewers were invited to bear witness to the lived experiences of those who wore these clothes, prompted to imagine them amid the fearsome brutality of war or grueling factory work.

The pared-back presentation was eerily effective and seemed especially potent in contrast to the elaborate mise-en-scènes of blockbuster fashion exhibitions. From the stained and painstakingly repaired British military foul weather cape dating from World War I to the 2018 Bee Pro Gear hooded beekeepers overalls, the empty suits in empty space really did “give the impression that this could either be an army of many men . . . or a singular man reiterated in different ways,” as Grove proposes. The privilege of male invisibility implies the prerogative to be no one and everyone at once.

The camouflaged object is not necessarily unseen—it is unseeable.

Refreshingly, the exhibition’s narrative was not reiterative. Instead of telling a story of the conflict between soberly tailored Savile Row gentlemen and dandified peacocks, Groves and Sprecher suggested more complex scenarios, confounding the desire to locate boundaries between functional workwear and designer garments, positing a dialectic between troubling gender and reinscribing it. By situating menswear staples like industrial overalls in the same space as interpretations of this garment by Issey Miyake and Comme Des Garçons, the curators illustrated how designers have repeatedly drawn on the conventions surrounding masculine archetypes, reproducing them until the “original meaning and function” fades away. The very process of forgetting the original purpose of, say, all-in-one garments that would protect the body helps to transform such clothing into symbols, iconographic representations of masculinity, authority, and institutional power. Of course, designers don’t just reproduce convention—they modify and sometimes disrupt it. An Alexander McQueen pinstriped three-piece suit from 1998, which evokes the conservative and obedient businessman dressed smartly for the office, has an elongated waistcoat that creates a kind of skirt. Ecclesiastical yet torqued in a way that raises questions about traditional masculine attire, the collection to which this belonged was inspired by Joan of Arc and ideas of martyrdom. However, as important as it is to acknowledge fashion’s subversive potential, this show felt new because it highlighted the extent to which men’s clothing—high fashion not excepted—“has largely allowed men . . . to avoid scrutiny.”

The University of Westminster’s remarkable menswear archive was conceived as a teaching collection, permitting students and designers to deepen their knowledge of the material, technical, and historical aspects of garments. One of the lessons this show offered is that to teach fashion is to teach gender. Of the various section groupings—“Capes,” “Overalls,” “Proletariat,” “Black Jacket”—I kept returning to the “Camouflage” aisle. Schooling viewers on the ways in which this most macho of patterns has given men freedom to wear bright prints without “threatening traditional constructions of male identity” (per Groves), this section featured an eclectic mix of items, including an American naval uniform, an Adidas Originals × Jeremy Scott jacket and trousers, and an irreverent Carnaby Street jacket from 1967 whose fringed cuffs permit its wearer to blend into the living-room drapes. Military camouflage developed around World War I, and initially it was a form of hypervisibility so extreme that the eye simply could not apprehend it. Perhaps in this respect it’s analogous to the performances of patriarchal masculinity itself, which hides in plain sight. As famously exemplified by the dazzle ships of the interwar era, the camouflaged object is not necessarily unseen—it is unseeable. In reconsidering the clothing through which masculinity and its associated powers are constructed, we make gender visible once more. 

Rebecca Bell is a lecturer in the Fashion Visual cultures department at Middlesex University, London. She has a Ph.D. In Design History from the Victoria and Albert Museum and Royal College of Art.