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Exhibition of Menswear Explores Men's Fashion from the 18th Century to the Present
Man's Shoes, c. 1973. Artist/maker unknown, Italian. Black and brown leather, red suede. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Darrel Sewell, 1989.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- This lively exhibition contradicts the notion of men’s apparel as staid and restrained, especially when compared to women’s fashions. The Peacock Male: Exuberance and Extremes in Masculine Dress, drawn primarily from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of Western fashion, examines 300 years of men’s sartorial display and includes flamboyant clothing as well as colorful accessories. It will be on view from January 22 through June 2011.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to look at men’s clothing from a different perspective, as it is a subject that is often overlooked, even though menswear is now so creative and diverse,” said Kristina Haugland, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles and Supervising Curator for the Study Room and Academic Relations. “Most people are surprised to find just how eye-catching men sought to be in the past, sporting extravagant floral embroidery, feathers, and flashy patterns. The exhibition is a great chance to show the wild side of masculine wear, from fur-crested helmets to high-tech sneakers.”

The exhibition opens with a look at the rich clothing worn by the 18th-century elite, from lavishly embroidered suits to zigzag-patterned silk stockings. During the 19th century, menswear tended to be sober by comparison, but could be accented with colorful accessories such as waistcoats, slippers or suspenders.

Thematic sections in the exhibition highlight those occasions when even the most reserved man could don eye-catching clothes. A section dedicated to men’s costumes includes a star-spangled “Uncle Sam” outfit from the early 20th century, a fuchsia silk satin fancy-dress ensemble from the late 19th century, and two mummers’ costumes – an English example from 1829 and a “Handsome Costume” made for Philadelphia’s famous parade in the 1990s, which represents a resplendent peacock with a ten-foot-wide tail.

Men are occasionally moved to decorate their clothes idiosyncratically to express themselves. Individualized attire is represented by a sailor’s blouse and bag embroidered with patriotic symbols during the Civil War and an ensemble dating to 1978-84 embellished by a self-taught African-American man using found objects and the yarn from unraveled socks. More commonly, the decision to decorate clothing in this way signifies allegiance to a group, as seen in the painted leather top hats worn by early 19th-century Philadelphia firemen and an emblematic Mason’s apron. Group affiliation is also evident in a late 19th century kilt ensemble in MacPherson hunting tartan, an outfit worn by a punk rocker in the 1980s, and a figure sporting some of the myriad clothing options – from cap to shoes – available to current fans of the Phillies baseball team.

Impressive clothing can serve to distinguish the wearer by rank or social status, as shown by an imposing early-20th- century uniform of Philadelphia’s First Troop, a ceremonial Herald’s tabard worn at the court of Queen Anne in the early 18th century, and embellished clothing worn by diplomats at court. Displaying status through splendid garments can also be done vicariously. In the past, for example, employers advertised their wealth by providing ostentatious livery to servants. Ornate vestments worn by members of the clergy also served to emphasize the separation between the spiritual and the mundane.

The Peacock Male also illustrates examples of leisure wear and sports gear, including a Rose Tree Hunt riding coat and an athletic sweater worn at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896. Unusual work wear includes a coat, mittens and lap robe made in the early 20th century from the hides of an Illinois man’s favorite horse team.

The final section focuses on menswear from the mid 20th century to today, from a “Nehru” jacket to a leisure suit to a hip-hop ensemble. Men’s clothing was creatively reinvented during the “peacock revolution” of the 1960s, as illustrated by psychedelic “paper” shirt emblazoned with the names of the era’s sex symbols and by flamboyant red and black platform shoes from around 1973. In recent decades, menswear has been further transformed, as shown by the groundbreaking works of designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Walter van Beirendonck, and Vivienne Westwood, represented in the exhibition by a bright orange/red bondage suit. Recent examples of outstanding masculine apparel on view include an argyle “shrunken” suit with clear vinyl cover by Allentown native Thom Browne, who reinvigorates the suit for a new generation, and ensembles by avant-garde designers Bernhard Willhelm and Romain Kremer, each represented by innovative looks from their Autumn/Winter 2010-11 fashion shows.

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