“Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015″ is a LACMA exhibition to delight the eye and gladden the heart of anyone who cares about clothes. That would exclude about 90 percent of younger men who seem content to slouch around in sneakers, baggy T-shirts, and even baggier cargo shorts. For the few males who aspire to elegance, value a well-cut suit or a dashing scarf, this 300-year survey will boost the sales of Mr. Porter, and gravely threaten their solvency. You don’t have to be a dandy. Beau Brummel revolutionized menswear in England two centuries ago, by shunning the peacock attire of his fashionable peers, and putting his trust in black cloth and crisp white linen.”If you noticed me, I could not have been well-dressed” he declared, with becoming modesty. The simplicity of a well-tailored dark suit and white shirt is as relevant today as in was in the 1820s; too bad that “the suits” is now a term of abuse for bankers and other villains.
It’s doubly sad, for this exhibition reveals the extraordinary elasticity of the concept of a suit. Here are richly embroidered jackets, waistcoats and breeches from the 18th century, and the subversive versions of historic attire by Vivienne Westwood and other iconoclastic contemporaries. Military uniforms morph into street wear for hipsters— “I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet” became a fashion hot spot in 1960s London. No two suits are more sharply contrasted than Gregory Peck’s, a masterpiece of understatement from Huntsman on Savile Row, and Franco Moschino’s sharp version in python skin, which was loaned by LACMA’s new best friend, Jim Goldstein, from his own wardrobe.
Commune, a leading L.A. design firm, makes its museum debut with the installation of Reigning Men. They’ve done a brilliant job of positioning mannequins on platforms of different heights, all painted in dark colors that seem to flatter every fabric and tone. Too often fashion shows become as monotonous as an army drill; here each costume relates to its neighbors and stands apart. The exhibition is a triumph for LACMA, which has drawn on one of the finest collections of menswear in the U.S., and for curators Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker, who devised the narrative structure that gives each piece its place in the evolution of fashion. The exhibition runs through August 21. —Michael Webb