Real Men Wear Velvet
Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek
Byline: Blake Gopnik
A new exhibition showcases the grooviest threads in the history of guys' fashion.
To visit The Peacock Male: Exuberance and Extremes in Masculine Dress at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it seemed right to don peacockery. A black velvet jacket in an Oscar Wilde cut appeared a suitable option. I might as well not have bothered. How could such a thing compete with a 1780s tailcoat in gold- and blue-striped silk, with a garden's worth of tulips embroidered across its cuffs, lapels, and pockets? My velvet jacket in black might as well have been gray flannel when compared with the cherry-red one worn in 1936 by Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr., America's well-dressed ambassador to Norway, or with another one in zebra stripes from a few decades later.
Today, men's fashion has come to a point of such dowdiness that a black velvet jacket that once would have counted as sober, even mournful, now gets looks on the Philadelphia train. What was once ambassadorial now counts as beyond the pale, at least for anyone who moves in mainstream circles. No stockbroker or professor (or magazine art critic) could get away with wearing a piece from the very latest collection of German avant-garde designer Bernhard Willhelm, on view in Philadelphia. Willhelm took a bizarre red- and black-hooded kaftan, at miniskirt length, and put it over skintight leggings with hazard-orange calves, flesh-beige thighs, and blue culottes at the top.
In 1991 Yohji Yamamoto designed a plain black coat--and covered its white lining with a garish image of Marilyn Monroe as a bare-breasted mermaid. And about that same time, Vivienne Westwood, the bad girl of British fashion, made a "bondage suit" in hunt red wool, with a strap joining its pants at the knees. (Disclosure: in 1980 I owned such trousers in black vinyl. Climbing stairs in them was--interesting. They ended up cracking in Montreal's winter.)
Mention of "hunt red" brings me to the most important insight provided by this show: extravagance is entirely in the eye of the beholder. …