Invisible Men: Menswear through history

Written by Laia Feliu

The Westminster Menswear Archive has compiled more than 170 garments over the last 120 years of predominately British menswear. The pieces included in the exhibition were created by some of the fashion industry’s biggest names including Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and Jean-Paul Gaultier. 

The exhibition aims to explore the language of menswear, which for many years has focused on functional clothing for industrial or military use. Professor Andrew Groves, the curator of Invisible Men said: “Despite the explosion in fashion exhibitions in recent years, menswear is still marginalised and excluded from the history of dress.”

Mr Groves has revolutionised fashion education at the University of Westminster through his reconciliation of the course timetable with the international fashion calendar, pioneering the way for undergraduate courses to be involved with the official London Fashion Week schedule. His passion and feelings of injustice regarding the underrepresentation of male fashion led him to create the world’s first two-year menswear course also being shown on the British runway.

Whilst Mr Groves looks to shed light on the shadow cast over the publics perspective of men’s fashion within London; he has expressed that his goal is to display the underappreciated history of men’s fashion on a global stage in hopes it will “affect fashion exhibitions worldwide”.

Until now, womenswear has been dominating the history of fashion design. We have London Fashion Week, but it is predominantly womenswear. There is the Vogue Fashion Fund, but menswear designers are excluded from applying. However, not everything is lost for men’s fashion as some designers, such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano have been endless innovative machines through their “critical thinking and design output” according to Groves. 

Groves firmly believes that the usage of gender roles inside fashion is a recurring theme, explaining “this is something that has gone on for centuries. I would go as far to say that fashion usually only does this in a passing faddish way, doing it in a manner that ends up reinforcing the prevailing gender codes, rather than dismantling them or changing them.” 

He suggests that gender roles have previously acted as a restricting factor of expression inside men’s fashion. One section of the exhibition that showcases leopard print from the early 1990s by Junior Gaultier, displays how the usage of camouflage allowed men to wear “a lot of colour and pattern” whilst feeling ‘manly’ and ‘masculine’ through the form of military uniform. 

The importance of Invisible Men in the modern male fashion scene is rationalised by the “continual assumption that fashion equals womenswear”. Groves explains that through fashion exhibitions like the 1971 Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton, which set a template for how temporary exhibitions, for the most part, presented fashion.” The majority of representation being womenswear, became the norm for fashion exhibitions across the globe.

A division has existed in British fashion in recent years with regard to class and gender. Invisible Men ventures to showcase the frequent disestablishment of ‘normal´ fashion ideals, a concept which has become synonymous with menswear in recent years through the tendency of men’s fashion designers coming from a more working class background in comparison to women’s, whom are generally “high-status women designing for other high-status rich women”. Groves explains, “British style is a constant dialogue between the ruling classes and the working classes, and at the center of this is the idea that the rules of correct dress are there to be broken and subverted. This is far more prevalent in menswear.”

Most notable examples of menswear are associated with a certain “bad boy” image, this is due to the intent of their relevant subcultures wanting to embody the destruction of societal norms and ideals; Groves added, “almost all British subculture styles were based upon the subversion of current concepts of acceptable dress. Think Teddy Boys, Mods, Punks and Casuals. All of these subcultures were predominantly, though not exclusively male-focused.”

Invisible Men has successfully added to the minority of exhibitions, setting the stage for future designers and fashion enthusiasts to take a more active involvement in the development and presentation of menswear. Groves and his team have accomplished this through a beautifully expressive range, exploring the history and value of men’s clothing in the fashion world.

Sub-edited by Maisie Thompson

Images by Laia Feliu

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