Fashion is all too often considered female territory, but as a major museum exhibition is now proving, men have long been slaves to this fickle mistress. Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until 21 August, tracks shifts in male fashion from the 18th century onward. The clothing on view demonstrates how that early silhouette gradually transformed into the foundation of today’s modern tailoring: slender legs, narrow waists, strong shoulders and broad chests.


AS DEPICTED IN 1782 BY SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS, CAPTAIN GEORGE K. H. COUSSMAKER IS ALL MANLY
CONFIDENCE. © THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / ART RESOURCE, NY

Typical dress for the 18th-century gentleman was a three-piece suit, which consisted of breeches and a dress coat worn over a sleeveless waistcoat or vest. With their sequins, tassels and glitzy embroidery, many of LACMA’s 18th-century garments look distinctly feminine to us, but back then, men of a certain class dressed just as boldly and elaborately as women. The 1730s and 1740s were not the most flattering decades in men’s fashion history – a tailored fit was secondary to the quality of the textiles used in men’s clothes. The dress coats were bulky and their skirt sections voluminous, with extra material gathered into pleats at the side seams. A crucial design element, these seams and their abundant fabric allowed both for dramatic flourishes while mounting steeds and for comfortable seating en route. Since all gentlemen were entitled to wear swords, the coats often included an open slit to accommodate the weapon at the hip. Shoulders were sloped and sleeves broad, folding back in wide cuffs at the wrist – a clever move to visually balance the ample coat skirt below and the vast, curling periwig atop the head. Sometimes made of matching fabric, the waistcoat reached the hip and buttoned down the front, giving even the slimmest chap a paunch. No matter how exquisite the textiles, to today’s viewer the clothing appears stiff and oversized. Coupled with grey-powdered wigs, these boxy silhouettes made strapping young portrait sitters look positively middle-aged.

By the 1760s, sleeves had become narrower and cuffs more modest. In the decades that followed, coats became tighter, giving gentlemen a more elongated, slender figure. Suits were now made from whimsically patterned cloth, with yet more elaborate embellishment added onto coat fronts, cuffs and pockets. Alexander Roslin’s 1771 portrait of the then 25-year-old King Gustav III of Sweden with his brothers, Princes Frederick Adolf and Charles, offers a striking picture of this moment in style. The Swedish royals’ coats are encrusted with precious metal decoration, and each sibling has matched his cuffs with his waistcoat – a rather nice touch. While the brothers look fabulous, they do not exactly ooze manliness to the 21st-century gaze. Roslin posed them surveying plans for fortifications to indicate their power and military prowess; for us, this activity may be the only element in the scene to help them appear vaguely macho.  


ALEXANDER ROSLIN’S 1771 PORTRAIT OF SWEDISH KING GUSTAV III AND HIS BROTHERS EMBODIES AN ESPECIALLY ORNATE MOMENT IN STYLE.
© PAINTING / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO.

And yet, shortly thereafter, the slimmer silhouette began to appear thanks to an ever-greater emphasis on tailoring. It was in the 1780s and 1790s when everything changed: Waistcoats became shorter, narrowing the waist, and coat skirts lost all volume, becoming flat and sleek. As painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1782, Captain George K. H. Coussmaker couldn’t look more different than the young Swedish royals in Roslin’s portrait. Just look at the Captain’s comportment – what swagger! His coat fronts curve backward dramatically from his chest to show off his narrow waist; the sloping shoulders of the previous decade are gone and the armholes have shifted back, drawing together the shoulder blades and thrusting out the chest.



THE LACMA EXHIBITION TRACES THE GRADUAL SHIFT IN MENSWEAR. PICTURED HERE: A 1730S BULKY DRESS COAT, LONG WAISTCOAT
AND BROAD SLEEVES (LEFT),  A FRENCH CIRCA 1760 COURT SUIT WITH A SLIMMER, ELONGATED SILHOUETTE (CENTRE) AND A 1790S
 MODERN LOOK, AS SHOWN IN A FRENCH COAT AND VEST (RIGHT).  PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY MUSEUM ASSOCIATES/LACMA

From then on, it wouldn’t be long before this style evolved into the peak of manly men’s fashion, the Regency period. There’s a reason the quintessential Regency gentleman sets modern hearts aflame while King Gustav leaves us cold. That early 19th-century silhouette marked the dawn of an idealised male figure that endures today – narrow waist, wide chest and all. Of course, then as now, not every man could pull it off. Luckily for those lacking in natural attributes, radical improvements in tailoring meant that almost anyone could achieve the illusion of a perfect figure. Shoulders and chest panels could be padded to add bulk, cloth could be manipulated with steam to smooth lines, and a type of corset could even be worn to pull in the waist. While the 18th-century nobleman could only rely on the distraction of opulent fabrics, fine tailoring now permitted even the most unlikely gentleman to be sculpted into a handsome male. And as we know, the same holds true today.


Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York. Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015, is on view at LACMA through 21 August.