The history of men’s fashion is much more complicated, and revolutionary, than you might expect | St. Louis Public Radio

The history of men’s fashion is much more complicated, and revolutionary, than you might expect

Jul 7, 2017

Created by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear,” is showing in St. Louis – the second and only other planned stop in the U.S., aside from L.A.

The exhibition examines the kind of men who wore certain clothing as well as the clothing itself and the culture in which it was worn.

It’s thematically organized into five galleries beginning with “Revolution/Evolution.” A big part of that gallery focuses on the French Revolution.

“It was kind of the democratization of fashion to some degree,” said Genny Cortinovis, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “There was obviously a breakdown of class at that period in time too so a lot of the constraints that you would see prior to that did not exist after that.”

The zoot suit display at the Saint Louis Art Museum's "Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear" exhibition.
Credit Saint Louis Art Museum

The “Revolution/Evolution” gallery further highlights the degree to which cultural, political and social events have impacted fashion. It also includes aspects of youth and rebellion – youth culture, dance and music.

To that end, one of the rarest pieces featured in the entire exhibition is a zoot suit.

“It’s a really exaggerated version of the iconic zoot suit, which is this generally kind of wool, often times striped suit that was worn in the dance halls in the 1930s and 40s,” Cortinovis said. “It was often times worn by African-Americans, Chicanos and immigrant groups and was associated with youth and rebellion of the period.”

The second and third galleries are “East/West” and “Uniformity,” respectively.

“East/West” demonstrates how various international cultural exchanges have influenced materials and fashion.

“Uniformity,” the largest of the five galleries, considers various “uniforms” and includes five subthemes that include military and workwear.

Cortinovis said the most provocative gallery is “Body Consciousness.”

“This is asking us to kind of challenge our idea that men have not been preoccupied with modifying or perfecting their bodies, either through tailoring, molding, cinching ... padding or through diet and exercise so that they wear skimpy swimsuits and even thongs,” she said.

The gallery is replete with a pair of resplendent thongs, a demonstration of how men’s swimwear has changed over time.

The evolution of men's swimwear.
Credit Saint Louis Art Museum

Though, on a more serious note, “Body Consciousness” considers how the conception of the “ideal” male body has evolved.

“In the 18th century the ideal silhouette for a man was really more pear shaped – it was to kind of show that you had a nice round belly to show what a great dinner you could eat,” Cortinovis said.

“In the 19th century it becomes much more hourglass, that’s the kind of dandy look and that’s where tailoring comes in.

“In the 20th century it’s much more about the athletic look, maybe something we might associate with Olympians or even male models – a kind of triangular-shaped physique,” she said.

Listen to an audio tour of the exhibition here:


Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear” is on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum through September 17th.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.