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. Peacock Male makes the mistake of including an actual hunting jacket, in the same scarlet as Westwood’s bondage suit, that doesn’t stand for extravagance or foppery at all. When worn by a horseman on Philadelphia’s Main Line in the 1940s—or even today—it reads as a sign of establishment values taken almost to extremes.
Gallery: Peacock Male Exhibit
If anything is entirely context-sensitive and culture-dependent, it is clothes. A stunning pair of knit-silk stockings, in zigzags of blue and black and beige and white and tan, might no doubt have seemed perfectly masculine and mainstream on the 18th-century gentleman they were made for. Wear them in the wrong neighborhood now—say, with a nice pair of silk knee breeches—and your manhood might be questioned at the toe of a boot. A herald’s tabard from the reign of Queen Anne, crawling with gold embroidery, must have seemed more old-fashioned than fashion-forward in its day—more like work clothes than partywear, and perfectly male. A paper shirt from the later 1960s is cut almost identically, and is quite like the tabard in its decoration: it too is covered in swirls, this time psychedelic ones with paisleys and daisies in grape, hot pink, and lime green.
A stunning pair of knit-silk stockings, in zigzags of blue and black and beige and white and tan, might have seemed perfectly masculine and mainstream.
Looking closer, you realize that the paper shirt couldn’t be more different in its social meanings than the herald’s tabard: I LIKE GIRLS, proclaims a text emblazoned on the shirt’s front, surrounded by the names of 1960s pinups like Raquel Welch, Brigitte Bardot, and Ursula Andress. Methinks its owner doth protest too much—but wearing such a thing in 1968, he might have had no choice.
Maybe contemporary fashion actually lets a guy off easy: to achieve a peacock splash, you no longer have to spend all your savings on silver embroidery; all you need is a bit of black velvet in a Victorian cut.
Blake Gopnik writes about art and design for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously spent a decade as chief art critic of the Washington Post and before that was an arts editor and critic in Canada. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University, and has written on aesthetic topics ranging from Facebook to gastronomy.