INSTALLATION VIEW OF THE PEACOCK MALE. Left to right: DANCING PEACOCK MUMMERS COSTUME, circa 1993. Suit of sequined synthetic knit, feathers; mask of peacock feathers, feathers, plastic; tail of peacock feathers, sequins, metal; shoes of painted leather. Made by Joseph Andrus, American, 1927–1998, for the Golden Sunrise Mummers, Philadelphia. UNCLE SAM COSTUME, early twentieth century. Coat of cotton/linen plain weave with wool twill appliqués; trousers of striped ribbed cotton; waistcoat of wool plain weave, cotton/linen plain weave. Made in United States.
The Peacock Male

masculine arts


Dandy, fop, coxcomb, popinjay, metrosexual—many epithets have aimed over the years at men who push beyond the narrow bounds of gender-acceptable dress to show some flair in their attire, but no image seems more fitting than that of the strutting peacock flashing his feathers. The Peacock Male: Exuberance and Extremes in Masculine Dress, on display through June at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, celebrates three centuries of wild and whimsical men’s apparel.

“We wanted to do something different that would look at men’s clothes in a new way,” says curator Kristina Haugland. “The idea was always to dispel the myth that men don’t care about clothes and that fashion is something that only has to do with women.”

PAPER SHIRT, late 1960s. Printed, spun-bonded polyester. Made by Papierkleid, Germany.

Drawing from the museum’s extensive historical collection, as well as more recent acquisitions such as a large wardrobe donated by John Cale of the Velvet Underground in 2002, the hundred or so objects in the exhibition cover a wide array of flamboyant men’s fashions, from spats to hats, from English heraldry to American hip-hop.

Haugland is quick to point out that the sober style we have come to associate with men’s clothing, epitomized by the business suit, has not always been the norm. “In the eighteenth century, both genders really dressed up if they could afford to,” she says. “It was a social signifier that if you could afford to—and very few people could—you wanted to dress in silks.” For well-to-do Americans, this meant embroidered silk goods imported from Europe, such as the suit with chain-stitched flowering vines and wheat sheaves and the striped coat with satin embroidery, both made in France in the late eighteenth century, that greet visitors entering the exhibition.

The nineteenth century brought what has been dubbed the “Great Masculine Renunciation,” whereby men abandoned all things bright and beautiful to the feminine realm, and chose instead to adopt a more restrained palette. Even then, they could still show a touch of flash with accessories such as silk kerchiefs, cravats, suspenders, and waistcoats, as well as felt top hats, all included in the exhibition.

ZEBRA JACKET, circa 1950s. Printed cotton velveteen. Made by Browning, King & Co., New York City, 1868 – ?.

Opportunities for working-class men to don fancy dress were more limited and mainly centered on holiday festivities. An English mummer’s costume from 1829 festooned with appliquéd symbols, including pitchfork-wielding devils, horses and pipe-smoking men in profile, is paired with a 1993 Dancing Peacock costume made by Joseph Andrus (1927–1998) for the Golden Sunrise Mummers club of Philadelphia, showing the continuity of this tradition across continents and centuries. The mummers flank an early-twentieth-century Uncle Sam costume, a figure that dates to the beginning of the previous century but rose to prominence during World War I, when it was used to promote the war effort. These costumes demonstrate that exuberant male fashions do not always exist at the margins of society, provided they are deployed in socially sanctioned ways.

“Men especially are more likely to dress up and be flamboyant when they’re in a group,” notes Haugland. “So you can have these amazing, outrageous costumes like the Shriners, but as long as you’re with all the other people dressed in the same way, and it says who you are within that group, then you feel a sense of security about it.” Thus many of the fashions on display in The Peacock Male are uniforms of one sort or another, be they for cavalrymen, diplomats, sports fans, or punk rockers.

Fashion itself is generally a group endeavor, taking place along a chain that includes designers, manufacturers and retailers, often separated by long distances, but instances of individual expression can still be found. A particularly shining example of personal eccentricity is offered by the Diamond Sis’ Coat, Trousers, Hat, Cane, Bag, Bow Tie, and Rings by the Saint Louis-based self-taught artist Charlie Logan (1891–1984), who embroidered his clothes with thread from unraveled socks and other textiles and added found objects such as buttons and coins to create enigmatic outfits.

The Peacock Revolution of the 1960s at long last saw the erosion of the restrained male palette, as an explosion of new fashions opened up possibilities for men to dress more adventurously. From the Nehru jacket of the mid-1960s to the “leisure suit” of the 1970s, men’s apparel adopted brighter colors, more form-fitting cuts and an overall expressiveness previously reserved for women.

If the well-tailored silk garments of the eighteenth-century aristocracy represent one extreme of peacock fashion, at the other end would be the disposable “paper” clothes (actually made of a form of non-woven polyester) of the late 1960s. This trend is responsible for perhaps the most delightfully outré piece in the exhibition: a psychedelic purple, orange and green pullover with pink collar that would make Austin Powers blush. Manufactured in West Germany by Papierkleid, the shirt declares (somewhat dubiously) “I Like Girls” and is emblazoned with the names of sex symbols of the period: Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch and Nancy Sinatra, among others. (Haugland notes that a companion “I Like Boys” shirt offered Toni [sic] Curtis, Prince Philip and Charles de Gaulle!)

While fashions from the 1980s on have seen somewhat of a return to more traditional modes of male dress, this turn has been accompanied by a sense that the tradition itself can be endlessly subverted and reinvented. A 1984 red plaid suit by the Japanese designer Kenzo (born 1939) and a 2008 argyle suit with transparent cape and skirt by the American Thom Browne (born 1965) show how an enduring style such as the business suit can still be pushed in avant-garde directions.

Taking this trend a step further is English designer Vivienne Westwood (born 1941), whose Red Bondage Suit from about 1990 presents a double-breasted wool suit whose traditional cut is subverted both by its color and by the inclusion of sadomasochistic paraphernalia such as vertical zippers on the legs, an extended zipper wrapping from the crotch to the back, and an adjustable strap joining the legs, offering a very literal representation of the ways in which any fashion can simultaneously liberate and restrain the individual wearing it.


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