Charles Coote was a rogue. In the words of Rosalind McKever, co-curator of an extensive and provocative new exhibition of men’s fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Coote, the first Earl of Bellamont, was “not a very nice man… which only adds to the irony of how he is viewed now”. It’s a verdict delivered by McKever with icy understatement and a pointedly raised eyebrow.
The potted biography offered by the National Gallery of Ireland, owner of the most famous portrait of Coote, is less euphemistic, more damning.” “The Earl of Bellamont was a vain and pompous womaniser who deserted his wife… and in his will acknowledged six illegitimate children by four different mothers.” Further shade is thrown by our own National Gallery: “His appointment as a Knight of the Bath in 1764, and his raising to an earl in 1767, had more to do with political expediency than any real achievement.”
Maybe so. And yet, as immortalised in Joshua Reynolds’ celebrated painting (1773-1774), which will travel from Dublin to London this spring for Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, this careless Georgian fop did have one redeeming feature, at least for those of us who care about such things: the Earl was quite the style icon. In fact, he might have made a peacock reconsider its dowdy plumage and decide, in consultation with its tailor, to go for something a bit more daring, next time.
In Reynolds’ painting, Coote is shown leaning nonchalantly on his sword, his voluminous crimson cloak (now faded to pink) draped insouciantly over his shoulders as he gazes impassively into the middle distance, perhaps considering his next purchase on MatchesFashion. On his head sits the overblown, ostrich-feathered hat of the Order of the Bath. On his stockinged feet, ornate gold shoes with rosettes and, because rosettes are never enough on their own, spurs. It is, to use a beloved phrase of today’s Insta-popular fashion plates, a serious lewk.
“It is so extraordinarily camp,” says McKever of the Reynolds painting. We are looking at it, on a crisp November morning, projected onto a screen set up at one end of the splendid V&A boardroom, presided over by a portrait of Victoria herself, the sombre queen, in her widow’s black, providing a stark contrast to Coote’s outré styling. “In Ireland, when the National Gallery has its Pride events,” says McKever, “this is the picture they use.”
Almost 250 years after his death, then, the roistering philanderer Coote lives on, but not in any way he could have imaged. Rather than the macho swordsman he and Reynolds might have hoped they were projecting, a vision of patriarchal power, the painting, when seen through 21st-century eyes, has made the Earl a symbol of gender fluidity, an unlikely LGBTQ+ standard-bearer, and an inspiration to a new generation of fashion designers. The National Gallery of Ireland again: “Coote’s nonchalant stance and flamboyant robes present him, in a modern context, as a stereotypical camp gay man.”
McKever, a specialist in European painting and sculpture, looked at the Reynolds portrait of Coote recently with the young London-based designer Harris Reed, whose swooningly romantic experiments in non-binary clothing are worn by the pop stars Harry Styles, Olly Alexander and Solange . They stood together, too, in front of another notable portrait of another sumptuously upholstered 18th-century clothes horse: Jean-Baptiste Perronneau’s painting of Jacques Cazotte, author of The Devil in Love, winemaker, collector and counter-revolutionary, who lost his head to the guillotine in 1792. It is alongside the Perronneau that a striking pink ensemble by Reed, equally inspired by 18th-century and 1970s glam rock, will be displayed when the exhibition opens in March. That juxtaposition of new and old, image and object, will be repeated throughout the exhibition, which includes classical sculptures, Renaissance paintings, film and photography, plus clothes by multiple previous blockbusters including Alexander McQueen: Savage Beautyand Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up.
The V&A has had men’s fashion exhibitions before, Wilcox says, although “never on the same scale as this. But the timing seems good. Not only is there a revival in interest, and not only is the menswear industry expanding hugely, and not only is it economically significant, but there has been a great resurgence of creativity in contemporary men’s fashion.”
The reasons for this, Wilcox suggests, are numerous. “I think fashion always responds to social change,” she says. “Clothing reveals our hopes and aspirations, and also our vulnerabilities. Young designers now in particular are presenting new versions of masculinity. It could be helped by the internet; it could be the fact that the world is more connected, more global, so there’s more opportunity for diversity.”
Fashion, Wilcox and McKever concede, is cyclical. Menswear is subject to occasional paroxysms of ostentation, such as in the fab-and-groovy1960s and the let-it-all-hang-out 1970s. These are typically followed by recidivist retreats to stiff propriety, as exemplified by the 1980s power suit. The shift from dressing-up-box costume to off-the-peg uniform and back again is repeated throughout history.
McKever: “What we’re trying to latch on to is why is this [resurgence in flamboyance] happening now, when else has it happened, and what can we learn from those changes and shifts? We’re asking, ‘How is masculinity performed through clothes?’”
“It’s a big subject, menswear,” says Wilcox. “And while we’re covering centuries, we’re not trying to do everything. It’s not a survey show. What we’re trying to do is to propose inquiry, to open up debate.”
Fashioning Masculinity is divided into three discrete galleries: “Underdressed”, “Overdressed” and “Redressed”. The first explores the bodies beneath the garments, and how fashion has molded, and been molded by, changing tastes in the ideal masculine physique. “Exemplars of the perfect male body are present in all museums,” says McKever, as we look at images of classical sculpture, in which the naked male form is often draped or wrapped in fabric. “But within that you get a range of idealised bodies, from the really overmuscled Hercules to the much more lithe Adonis.”
“I think what we’re saying,” Wilcox says, “is that the body, as well as the clothing that goes on it, is subject to fashion.” Anyone who has seen a personal trainer in skinny jeans knows she’s on to something here. Happily, there is no such image, as far as I’m aware, in Fashioning Masculinities. Instead, visitors to the Underdressed space will be treated to depictions of the undressed male, from Michelangelo to Calvin Klein.
Overdressed is where, in a riot of color and drama and velvet and silk, exhibition-goers will meet the luxury shoppers of eras past and present, from the Earl of Bellamont to the creations of current American menswear designer Thom Browne, Nigerian designer Orange Culture , and our own Priya Ahluwalia.
Redressed, a contrast in stark monochrome, takes on the legacy of Brummell: the suit, in all its variety, from Edwardian frock coats to Teddy boys, the Duke of Windsor’s tartans to a recent Burberry design for Marcus Rashford, not excluding Marlene Dietrich in Anderson & Sheppard and Sam Smith in Hermès.
“The suit,” Wilcox says, definitively, “is not boring. It is extraordinary in its variety. Adolf Loos said the suit was the ultimate modern garment. It is such a beautiful, flexible thing.”
And men who wear suits, I am reassured, are not (not necessarily) boring men. Beau Brummell’s dandyism, McKever says, had less to do with flamboyance than with “taking an interest.”
If the dominant expression of masculinity throughout history, a conception of what it is to be a man as narrow as a mod’s lapel, has so often been about strength, power and frigid pragmatism, there has, too, always been a counter narrative of vulnerability , beauty and romance, and the display of these. “Sometimes the modes of expression are subtle,” says McKever. “It might be the quality of the cloth, the shape, the buttons, the cuffs: those tiny details that you have to look for, but they are there.”
Wilcox points to a description, in Ian Kelly’s magisterial biography of Brummell, of the old rake’s gloves. “They were made of pigskin so fine it was transparent, so you could see his fingers. There is also something so visceral about that. It’s very physical.”
From a discussion of the history of the suit we segue into the influence of military uniform on male dress then and now: the trench coat, the bomber jacket, the preponderance of navy in my own wardrobe. Perhaps not surprisingly, given I work for a men’s style magazine, I could talk to Wilcox and McKever about this stuff all day.
“Fashion is restless, isn’t it?” says Wilcox. “It’s always moving on. Perhaps historically, menswear has not moved so fast as womenswear, but now it’s accelerating.”
This show provides as good an opportunity as any to try to keep up.
Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, in partnership with Gucci, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 19 March – 6 November 2022; Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL; vam.ac.uk
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