Invisible Men: an anthology from the Westminster Menswear Archive
25 October – 24 November 2019
Fashion today is doing something that has never been done before: it is going for information and inspiration to the street and to the sports field. Perhaps it is the workman in his boiler suit, the garage mechanic, the welder on the building site, or the footballer who can provide the ‘look’ for our present-day needs.
Cecil Beaton, Introduction to Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton, 1971
Invisible Men displays over 180 garments exclusively drawn from the Westminster Menswear Archive. It covers the last 120 years of mostly British menswear organised into twelve thematic sections. It explores the design language of menswear by presenting designer garments alongside military, functional and utilitarian outfits. The replication of archetypal functional garments intended for specific industrial, technical or military use dominates menswear design. The exhibition illustrates how designers have disrupted these conventions through minimal, yet significant modifications to produce outcomes that both replicate and subvert their source material. The endless reproduction, appropriation and interpretation has meant that the original meaning and function has faded through each reiteration.
Through this approach, the language of menswear has developed an almost fetishistic appreciation of the working man in all his heroic iterations. Designs constantly reference the clothing of seafarers, soldiers, athletes, firefighters, road workers, and explorers. This design strategy has largely allowed men and what they wear to avoid scrutiny. These garments have remained largely invisible within fashion exhibitions in favour of presenting menswear primarily as the story of the dandy or the peacock male.
This exhibition aims to shine a light on these invisible men.
Curated by Prof Andrew Groves and Dr Danielle Sprecher
25 October – 24 November 2019
Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS
The Exhibtion featured the following designers: A-Cold-Wall*, Adidas, Aitor Throup, Alexander McQueen, Austin Reed, Belstaff, Bernhard Willhelm , Blades, BodyMap, Burberry, Burton, C.P. Company, Calvin Klein, Carol Christian Poell, Christian Dior, Comme Des Garcons, Craig Green, Dege & Skinner, Gieves, H&M, Harrods, Helmut Lang, Irvine Sellars, Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jeremy Scott, John Stephen, Junior Gaultier, Junya Watanabe, Left Hand, Levi’s, Lewis Leathers, Liam Hodges, Mackintosh, Martin Margiela, Massimo Osti, Meadham Kirchhoff, Michiko Koshino, Mr Fish, Nigel Cabourn, Palace, Paul Smith, Peter Saville, Prada, Sibling, Stella McCartney, Stone Island, Umbro, Undercover, Vexed Generation, Vivienne Westwood , Vollebak, Zegna Sport.
At its most minimal, a cloak is simply a piece of cloth wrapped around the body. Its form is one of the earliest garments. The cloak, and its shorter iteration the cape, has become synonymous with the idea of concealment, disguise and invisibility. ‘Cloak and dagger’ hints at espionage and secrecy, while in military terminology a cloaking device refers to the ability to avoid detection by making objects appear invisible. The cloak acts as an external barrier and garment that hides the body. In recent years, cloaks have made a resurgence within menswear due to their appeal as a mystical, genderless, ancient garment that transcends the whims of fashion.
Overalls are an all-in-one outer garment designed to protect a worker’s ordinary clothing. They are also known as coveralls, jumpsuits or boiler suits. Typically worn for trades traditionally identified as masculine and involving heavy and dirty manual labour, overalls are still the daily uniform for millions of workers. The ubiquitous nature of the overall means that they exist almost as a nongarment, unconsidered and unnoticed. They cover up what is worn underneath, allowing the wearer to hide their inner clothed identities. The adoption of the overall by menswear designers illustrates the minimal yet significant distance between men’s practical work wear and high-fashion interpretations.
As ubiquitous and as functional as a pair of jeans, for nearly 200 years the black tailored jacket has been a staple of the male wardrobe. Through variations of fabric, finish and cut, the black tailored jacket demonstrates menswear’s obsession with subtle differences that to the untrained eye are almost imperceptible. The rise of black as the colour of choice for men’s suits in Europe in the 1800s mirrored the development of the craft of tailoring and new avenues of male employment. Empire, business and government generated new professions filled by men clad in tailored black wool. In contemporary menswear, the black tailored jacket has retained its historic associations with respectability and formality even as designers have deconstructed it.
As the fourth industrial revolution advances, the opportunity for many men to demonstrate their masculinity through work that is physical, dirty or dangerous has diminished. This has led to designers drawing on the clothing of heroic workers, such as soldiers, firefighters and seafarers and the clothes of the road worker, ditch digger and labourer.
Covered with dirt and detritus, these designer garments are also layered with an idealised notion of a masculine ‘authenticity’ signified by the adoption of working clothes. They are stained and worn but not through the hard labour of the wearer. Paradoxically, and at great expense, the fashionable wearer presents a masculine ideal based on clothing with a history of working-class utility.
Camouflage is the use of any combination of materials, colouration, or illumination for concealment, either by making objects hard to see (crypsis) or by disguising them as something else (mimesis). A third approach, motion dazzle, confuses the observer with a striking pattern, making the object visible but briefly harder to locate. Military camouflage developed rapidly after the First World War and artists were commissioned to create designs. Technically known as disruptive pattern material (DPM), different national military forces have their own patterns and colours. The close relationship between camouflage and the military has meant it has strong associations with masculinity. In western fashion, it has become one of the ways that men can wear striking colour and pattern without threatening traditional constructions of male identity.
One of the significant functions of utilitarian menswear is to protect its wearer. As military weapons and industrial dangers have advanced, the technology of armour and protective clothing has developed to defend the body against their threats. The connection with hazard and risk of these garments also gives them and their wearer status, even a projection of bravery. Many menswear designs consciously reference this symbolic value. Bulletproof fabrics, Hi-Viz, ballistic weaves and metal plating have been adopted as a motif of contemporary menswear. This allows the wearer to imagine themselves as the heroic warrior of their daily existence, while their actual day to day activities may be banal and risk-free.
The development of the flight jacket followed advances in aircraft design during and after the First World War. In the United States, the evolution of American military aircraft led to a range of jackets known by their reference codes. These started with the A-1 in 1925 while the iconic MA-1 appeared in the 1950s. The introduction of the fighter jet in the 1940s meant that traditional leather flight jackets became impractical. They were bulky, got wet and froze at the higher altitudes flown by the new planes. The design response was a lightweight synthetic jacket. The most well-known of these, the MA-1 flight jacket, quickly became both essential kit and a desirable civilian garment. In 1963, Alpha Industries started manufacturing the MA-1 to US military specification and they began wholesaling them to a broader audience in 1984. Skinheads, clubbers, and gay men rapidly adopted the design as the ubiquitous garment of choice.
In 1997 Moreno Ferrari, the newly appointed designer at Italian brand C.P. Company, asked himself what challenges the modern man faced, and how he could design garments to make the wearer’s daily life better. As a result, he developed the Urban Protection range that incorporates complex, mostly hidden functionality into each garment. Superficially, the outerwear pieces look identical, but on closer investigation, each garment reveals that it performs a function for a specific purpose. A jacket detects pollutants in the air and sends alerts via an LED screen; another has an integral personal safety device, while another has hidden electronics to embed music into the garment. Ferrari’s approach prioritised utility, which meant that this collection transcended seasonal trends.
Men’s physicality has been on display through sport and military training for thousands of years, linking it to ritual, warfare and entertainment. Now a standard form of male dress, sportswear is designed both for the performance of particular sports and for the performativity of masculinities. Distinctively British sporting style dates to at least the mid-1700s and has strong associations with class as the wealthy could afford the time and money for specialist clothing. Significant factors in the widespread adoption of sportswear include increasing leisure time for working people, cheaper mass manufactured clothing, branding and technological innovation by sportswear businesses. Wearing specific clothing for watching sport has been equally important, especially as sportswear has shifted to leisurewear and streetwear.
Technology, the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, has a long history in the development of menswear. Wearable technology dates to the early 1700s with the creation of the portable ornamental watch. They were worn as pendants or attached to clothing and became fashionable among the nobility. Three hundred years later, the desire to incorporate the latest technological advances into fashionable clothing continues, albeit with mixed results. The millennium saw many designers inspired to produce garments that integrated electronics and portable consumer devices. These quickly became outdated with the rapid pace of improvements in mobile technology.
Alexander McQueen spent five years as an apprentice on Savile Row, learning the art of tailoring. Firstly, at Anderson & Sheppard, where he learnt to cut jackets, then later at Gieves & Hawkes where he was trained in the cut of trousers. His knowledge of the cut and construction of traditional menswear, and his ability to subvert this became central to the McQueen silhouette and aesthetic. As early as his 1996 collection The Hunger, McQueen’s runway shows featured menswear alongside his womenswear. However, it has until now been almost invisible; no examples were presented in the V&A’s Savage Beauty exhibition, which meant the connection between his menswear training in tailoring and its application and subversion into his cut and vision for womenswear remained unexplored.
Garments that relate to ritual, ceremony and formality draw on a historical lineage of menswear that has seemingly remained unchanged for many decades. Religious vestments, military uniforms and formal tailoring all feature aspects of the ceremonial and are frequently designed to display power and status. Many of these forms of dress entail exacting standards with rules about exactly how and when they are worn. They also frequently demonstrate considerable craft and skill in their production with elaborate decoration requiring labour intensive hand stitching. The references to archaic silhouettes, cut and detailing in these styles directly connect contemporary menswear to the past, often with romantic effect.