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'Bring Back Manly Men’: ‘Masculinities’ Exhibition at The Fashion & Lace Museum Brussels

Celina Bebenek discusses the recent controversy over changing norms in men's fashion and reviews the 'Masculinities' exhibition currently ongoing in The Fashion and Lace Museum, Brussels.


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by Celina Bebenek

Contributing writer

Fashion is a ubiquitous phenomenon and as such plays a prominent role in expressing and shaping our cultural and individual identities. However, beyond the mere expression of such identities, it can, at the same time, drive change in traditional social norms. This has been especially visible in recent times, as the notion of gender identity becomes more and more blurred and extends beyond the simple 'feminine’/'masculine' binary. Many prominent designers have been urged to rethink the topic of gender and question what it means to be masculine or feminine. For example, Belgian designer Mosaert explores gender fluidity and creates unconventional gender-neutral outfits. Creators like Jean Paul Gaultier have attempted to challenge gender norms by either embracing gender-neutral clothes or merging stereotypical feminine and masculine elements in fashion. Not surprisingly, it has also become a controversial topic outside of the fashion world: when singer Harry Styles appeared on a Vogue cover in a ballroom dress, right-wing journalist Candace Owens was quick to lambast him, causing a heated discussion on Twitter. Her comment appealing to 'bring back manly men' received over 48,000 replies and even prompted prominent politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to weigh in.

It is for this reason that the Masculinities Exhibition organized by The Brussels Fashion and Lace Museum is particularly timely. This exhibition flawlessly exposes masculinity in fashion, setting up a discussion on how 'fashion incarnates a variety of visions of man'. The official website of The Fashion & Lace Museum proudly claims that 'up until now, no Belgian museum had delved into the subject of men's fashion'. Indeed the masculinities exhibition seems not to only fit into the current debate but also provide a new and refreshing experience.

The exposition starts with the Fresco BYE BYE BINARY, 2020, a dazzling installation that depicts slogans or symbols related to gender fluidity. The main body of the exhibition then starts with a presentation of 18th-century fashion. This was the period of so-called 'Great Male Renunciation', a time when men stopped wearing shiny textures or defined shapes. On their website, they point out that 'just a few hundred years ago, there was not so much difference between the clothes that men and women [wore]'. However, as the exhibition progresses, it focuses on styles that we might find more familiar. We encounter, for example, a versatile selection of suits, items of clothing that have become synonymous with male fashion. Each of these suits is made in a different style, varying from the classical and the dandy through to the surreal and even suits containing punk elements. The last part of the exhibition focuses on contemporary 'street' fashion, highlighting unisex fashion and the exploration of more unknown and unconventional styles.The works presented in the exhibition include pieces from many talented Belgian designers and labels, such as Raf Simons, Walter Van Beirendonck, Namacheko, Mosaert, Xavier Delcour, Y/Project, Undercover, and Vêtement. However, the exhibition also hosts clothes by internationally established designers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Off-White, John Stephen, Giorgio Armani and Comme des Garçons. Each of them adds something to the 'ever-changing' notion of masculinity. The exhibition leaves the room for a discussion of cross-dressing as well, as the last room consists of interactive exhibits and videos exploring the life of drag queens.

The exhibition is very versatile, containing almost 100 exhibits, two thirds of which come from the museum's own collections, while the rest are loans from Belgian and international collections. It touches on a wide variety of topics that include culture, sexuality and embodiment. However, despite being aesthetically pleasing, it also takes us out of our comfort zone.

Given the rapid changes in the concept of gender identity in recent times, it is significant that society is rethinking the idea of gender norms. It seems that the exploration of fashion is an important way of taking part in this debate. Furthermore, exploring the history of fashion can ignite a broader debate on gender identity, stereotypes, and diversity in general.

This exhibition is located at Violetstraat 12 and costs just 8 Euro to enter. Thanks to the relaxed coronavirus measures, The Fashion and Lace Museum is currently open and should remain so until 13 June 2021.

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