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'Reigning Men' Traces 300 Years Of Men's Fashion At LACMA


Most museum exhibits about the history of fashion featured gowns and other women's attire, but the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has an exhibit that turns the runway lights on men's fashion - 300 years of britches, trousers and waistcoats. It's called Reigning Men. Yes, R-E-I-G-N-I-N-G. Matt Guilhem of member station KVCR went to check it out.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: Right by the entrance to the exhibition stands a mannequin wearing a suit by Ozwald Boateng. He's a Londoner born to Ghanaian parents and the first high-profile black tailor on London's Savile Row, the small street famed for centuries for its made-to-measure clothing.

OZWALD BOATENG: It's great when you can seamlessly combine two historical cultures together without basically interfering with either culture. That's what I find really, really interesting.

GUILHEM: Boateng's suit reflects his cross-cultural heritage, but only if you look really closely. There's an intricate circular pattern woven throughout the purple tweed of the coat and dark slacks.

BOATENG: The design that I've used on the cuff - there's a fabrication in Ghana particularly across West Africa where we do these prints, and these women wear these amazing colored fabrication prints. And I basically have taken the two worlds and combined them.

GUILHEM: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art or LACMA, as it's known, commissioned the suit specifically for this exhibition.

CLARISSA ESGUERRA: It's subtle. I think it really speaks to the original use of the term dandyism to have a restrained, refined elegance, but yet making a statement of bringing these two worlds together in a very global world.

GUILHEM: Clarissa Esguerra is one of the show's three co-curators. While Boateng's suit reflects today's style with its slim cut, Esguerra says it draws on something much older.

ESGUERRA: The jacket that Ozwald Boateng is wearing - the sack jacket - our earliest example of that is actually a shooting jacket from 1840.

GUILHEM: The path from shooting jacket to formal wear is simple, says Esguerra. It was comfortable.

And Boateng's trousers, too, go back a long way to the working-class men of 18th century France known as sans-culottes.

ESGUERRA: Which literally means without breeches.

GUILHEM: We've moved to a mannequin wearing one of the rarer outfits in the show. It dates to the 1790s. He's wearing a red cap, cropped blue jacket and most importantly...

ESGUERRA: He's wearing trousers. I mean, if you look at the men that represent the 18th century before him, they're all wearing breeches which were so symbolic of aristocracy, of wealth and for a man to wear these trousers as a statement for a revolution is pretty profound.

GUILHEM: The sans-culottes became the revolutionaries who overthrew the French monarchy.

ESGUERRA: You know, many fashion historians have point to this era as a period where fashion in menswear really drastically changed and altered its course from the ostentatious dress of the 18th century with the silks and embroidery to the kind of somber suits of the Victorian era.

GUILHEM: Whether it's a top hat and tails from the 1930s or a banyan robe inspired by the Far East that European gentlemen wore at home in the 1700s, the items tell a story of evolving tastes shaped by a changing world. It's easy to forget these aren't costumes, but garments real people wore in their daily lives. Ozwald Boateng says the best ones share a common trait no matter the era or culture.

BOATENG: A really good suit is about the cut and it's also about the experience of the wearer in the suit. The suit is an enhancer of the wearer's personality.

GUILHEM: Clothes don't make the man, says the man who makes the clothes. For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Guilhem is a native of the Inland Empire. After growing up in the region, he went north to Berkeley for university and earned a degree in English. Matt's passion for radio developed late; he hosted a program while abroad in 2011 and knew he had found his calling. Matt started at KVCR as an intern in 2013; he now serves as both a reporter and host for the station. You can hear him regularly most weekday afternoons on All Things Considered, occasionally filling in on Morning Edition, and filing news reports for both programs.