Press backgrounder: The themes of ‘Reigning Men’

By | June 14, 2017

Organized into five thematic sections, “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015” highlights many factors that have influenced menswear over the last three centuries.

“Revolution/Evolution” illustrates the dialogue between social and political events and men’s fashion. “East/West” observes how international cultural exchanges have introduced new materials and silhouettes to menswear. “Uniformity” explores the critical impact military and working uniforms have had on men’s fashion. “Body Consciousness” demonstrates that over time men have been just as preoccupied with enhancing their physiques as women. Finally, “The Splendid Man” considers how fashion designers throughout history have challenged traditional notions of menswear and masculinity.


For centuries, men’s fashions have undergone revolutions and evolutions that mirror similar shifts in society. Men who consciously used clothing to express their individuality and ideals led many of these transformations.

For example, in 1770s Britain, the notably ostentatious suits of the fashionable man known as the macaroni were the forerunners of countless trends and innovations to come. During the French Revolution (1789–99), dress indicated political allegiance in times of violent upheaval. The working-class militants, who wore practical trousers and hip-length jackets, established a template for menswear that is now widespread. In the 20th century, the confrontational anti-fashion of punk underscored the power of clothing to shock.

Not all revolt in clothing has been as aggressive. Other fashion insurgents have worn luxurious textiles in striking colors or patterns to express their resistance to the limits of traditional menswear. For much of the 20th century, youth subcultures ushered in lasting changes in men’s fashion in ways ranging from subtle to bold. In contrast, the elegant clothing of the dandy has remained understated, with careful attention to detail and construction, from the innovative tail coats of the early 1800s to the slim suits of today’s well-dressed man.


For centuries, interactions between East and West have profoundly influenced menswear across the globe. This international exchange in fashion gained popularity in the West during the 17th and 18th centuries, when upper-class men relaxed at home by wearing informal robes that were inspired by Eastern styles. This tradition persisted well into the 20th century.

Specialized ensembles emerged in the 19th century as men shifted away from pipe smoking in favor of cigars and cigarettes. Soldiers returning to Europe from the Crimean War (1853–56) brought back a taste for Turkish tobacco and smoking accessories. Smoking jackets and caps allowed men to express a measure of fashionable extravagance that they would not otherwise display.

International commerce has resulted in the cross-fertilization of styles, motifs, and textiles. For example, European merchants and diplomats in locales such as India and the West Indies, unaccustomed to the local climates, adapted by altering the fabrics and design of their clothing. As global trade increased, Eastern motifs were creatively translated into designs for Western markets.

Leaders in Japanese fashion design have referenced their Eastern heritage in making avant-garde Western styles. Today, they are joined by a growing number of international designers who are defying geographic boundaries and traditional clothing conventions in their quest to create innovative fashion.


Both etiquette and function have long served as inspiration for fashionable menswear. The demand for army and navy uniforms in late 18th-century Britain generated the thriving industry on London’s Savile Row of men’s bespoke, or custom, tailoring. Other elements of military wear—including maritime motifs, protective outerwear, and camouflage—eventually found their way into civilian men’s fashion.

Similarly, strictly utilitarian clothing has also influenced fashionable dress. Jeans, which originated around 1850 during the California Gold Rush as work wear for miners, later evolved into casual wear and eventually high fashion. Men’s business attire, once made of pastel-colored silks, transitioned to blue wools, and later into the grey “sack” style that remains the basic suit silhouette today.

When not conducting business, colorful and patterned “undress” offered gentlemen a welcome respite from the somber formality of dark wool clothing. Functional styles made for leisure and sporting pursuits eventually transformed into fashionable standards for daily wear. Though not nearly as comfortable, formal wear has long granted men the opportunity to express grandeur and wealth. From 18th-century court suits to the modern tuxedo, men’s formal attire may represent the grandest uniform of all.

Body Consciousness

Prior to the early 19th century, fashion was largely dominated by clothing that concealed the body’s shape under layers of fine textiles and costly trims. In the mid to late 1700s, archaeological discovery of ancient sites, such as Pompeii, renewed interest in the styles of ancient Greece and Rome. This focus created a new ideal for men’s bodies—namely, broad shoulders and a slim waist—which prompted clothing to adapt.

Men went to great lengths to achieve this youthful, sculpted silhouette modeled on ancient ideals. Male corsets were devised to achieve the exaggerated slender waistline. Simultaneously, the chest, shoulders, hips, and calves could be expanded through padding. Molding techniques to tailor garments into a desired silhouette were also developed at this time, becoming a mainstay of men’s fashion for nearly two centuries.

As the shape of men’s bodies became more evident through clothing, the practice of exposing skin also evolved. In 1900, swimming etiquette required men to wear “bathing costumes” fashioned after full coverage underwear; by the 1970s, men’s swimsuits were minimized to show off a developed physique. Similarly, the fitness and body-sculpting craze of the 1980s reversed centuries of fashion standards to cover male anatomy, and sheer dressing became fashionable. Today each man is now left to decide if his own ideal is best revealed or imagined.

The Splendid Man

Court dress in the 18th century was lavishly decorated with glittering precious metals and stones. Guilds of highly skilled professional weavers and embroiderers kept the aristocracy supplied with new and more extravagant finery. Additionally, the use of animal furs was popular with society’s tastemakers. Leather, long used for utility, can also signify wealth and status, especially the exotic skins used in designer fashions.

Floral patterns, primarily associated with women’s clothing today, formerly decorated menswear as well. This fashion for florals reflected a broad interest among Europeans in plants and flowers, driven by illustrated botanical books, travel, and trade that introduced new species to the continent. It was only in the mid-19th century that florals started to be regarded as strictly feminine, though in recent years they have begun to make a comeback as a component of dress for the elegant male.

Color, one of the defining factors in the contemporary splendid man, reflects the growing acceptance of an expanded palette in menswear. Since the mid-19th century, with a few exceptions, men’s business or formal dress has been somber. Today, with a respectful bow to their predecessors in the 18th century, men may once again be truly splendid— bathed in color, steeped in choice, and adventurous in style.