Dude Duds: The McCord Museum takes a long view of men's clothing | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

Dude Duds: The McCord Museum takes a long view of men's clothing


Published September 4, 2002 at 1:00 a.m.


Whenever I consider the differences between men’s and women’s fashion, the Academy Awards come to mind. For better or worse, who can forget Björk’s swan dress of a couple years back? Or Gwyneth Paltrow’s clingy transparent top at this year’s festivities? On the other hand, who can remember the differences between the tuxes Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe sported to pick up their Oscars? Not that every — or any — guy should look like Liberace, but sometimes you have to wonder if men’s styles could get any duller.

Because of these snoozy preconceptions, I approached the “Clothes Make the MAN” exhibition at Montréal’s McCord Museum with some trepidation. The day I visited, however, it was brutally hot in the city, so escaping to any air-conditioned, cave-like environment made this man happy. And, actually, the McCord makes a good case that the words “men” and “fashion” can belong in the same sentence.

“Clothes Make the MAN” looks not only at how men’s styles have changed over the past three centuries but also at evolving concepts of what constitutes a “manly image.” Though the display is organized along several themes — including propriety, fraternity and production — it keeps circling back to how a man’s desire to be fashionable has always been tempered by a stronger desire not to have his masculinity questioned.

Many an insult has been hurled at the appearance-conscious man over the years, among them coxcomb, popinjay, fop, macaroni, dandy and dude — minus the Keanu Reeves exclamation-point intonation. In other words, a guy should look stylish but not too stylish, i.e., homosexual. The McCord tiptoes around this point a bit, avoiding the admittedly modern word “gay” until the “Questions to Ponder” placard at the exhibition’s conclusion.

More interesting, in any event, than broad and sometimes predictable thematic statements are the clothes themselves. Some fit neatly into stereotypical notions of what makes clothing masculine: sturdy fabrics in somber colors, no frills, and definitely no flowers. Others defy expectations — at least contemporary ones. An 18th-century emerald-green silk coat embellished with elaborate pink and white floral embroidery falls into this latter category.

If the 18th-century aristocrat was allowed a bit of flamboyant excess to mark his manhood and place in society, the Victorian man was not. In the 19th century, subtle tailoring of fine but muted fabrics replaced ostentatious frou-frou. Not that there wasn’t any embellishment; it just went, literally, undercover. If a man’s physique was either lacking or overabundant, a little secret fabric manipulation could ease nature’s imperfections. Today we have to hit the gym or get liposuction.

The exhibition goes heavy on formalwear, including a suit worn by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — in keeping with the show’s appropriately Canadian slant. But some of the most beautiful pieces are accessories. When a man’s fashion sense gets constrained by societal

convention, he compensates by accessorizing boldly. I was particularly taken with a display of gorgeously patterned 19th-century silk handkerchiefs — that is, until I read that the patterns functioned to “disguise the results of snuff use.”

Some lovely Eastern-inspired brocaded dressing gowns, smoking jackets and fez-like caps continued the tobacco theme. These luxurious garments, worn only in private, prevented smoke fumes from permeating a Victorian man’s public clothes and gave him the opportunity to get gussied up among friends. One velveteen smoking cap with a bright yellow tassel possessed such jaunty flair I longed to snatch it up and return to an age when smoking was considered to have “healthful properties.”

The salutary benefits of physical activity were often used to usher in style innovations, particularly those that threatened long-held ideas about modesty or sexuality. A swimwear display, for instance, reveals how men’s suits have shrunk from a cumbersome neck-to-knee style popular in the 1860s to the more practical streamlined suits of today. Until the 1930s, it was taboo for a man to appear bare-chested in public. Ironically, the loose-fitting trunks most guys favor now are in some ways more modest than the old-fashioned jersey swimsuits, which, the exhibition text wryly notes, “covered much but left little to the imagination.”

Speaking of coverage, one of the highlights of “Clothes Make the MAN” is a history of the fly. A selection of trousers dating from the 1700s through the 1990s illustrates how concealment of and access to a certain portion of the male anatomy has changed over time. Observing a pair of 18th-century breeches, I couldn’t help but imagine the calamities that would result if, say, some beer-guzzling fratboys found themselves in the men’s room having to negotiate the intricacies of “small fall-front” flaps and lord knows how many buttons. How easy we have it today with the generally foolproof zipper! Its domination over the button-fly wasn’t secure, however, until men became convinced that “failing technology” wouldn’t leave them wide open to embarrassment.

The exhibition goes on, from novelty ties to detachable collars. The sportswear section has treats for hockey and snowshoeing aficionados, along with a blindingly bright pair of polyester tennis slacks. For guys like me, who are unlikely to encounter a Papal Zouave uniform in daily life, here’s the chance. Another uniform of sorts — a leather jacket from the 1980s — cleverly combines the slogan “Eat the Rich” with skull and cutlery crossbones.

“Clothes Make the MAN” concludes with examples of how women’s fashion has liberally borrowed from men’s but generally not vice versa, with a few notable exceptions such as the Scottish kilt. One can hope, as gender roles and rules continue to shift, that future exceptions might give men’s fashion a needed kick in the pants. If Johnny Depp ever wins Best Actor, I personally think he’d look fabulous in a dress.

If you’re in Montréal and the weather’s inhospitable — or if you’re a theater costumer or a sartorial devotee — this exhibit is a worthy diversion. In addition, the McCord permanent collection contains all sorts of objects — including First Nations works and an impressive photographic archive — relating to the history of Canada, with a focus on Québec and Montréal. Anticipating the infernal heat outside, I was tempted to jump into a display featuring monster Montréal snowstorms.

It wasn’t until I hit the streets and saw some saggy-trou’d hip-hop boys sauntering past that I realized at least one important male garment was absent from the show. Unless Canadian men have gone commando for three centuries, it seems odd there wasn’t at least a cursory peek into what lies beneath the clothes that make the man. Heck, if American presidents are willing to admit their preferences, it seems only fair to expose the history behind that age-old query: boxers or briefs, dude?