Clothes make the man

'Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion' at the RISD Museum
By GREG COOK  |  May 13, 2013

TAILOR MADE 'A Portrait of Auguste Vestris, half length, wearing a Grey Coat and a Fur Hat' (1793), by Adele Romany.

What does it mean to be a man? That's the question at the heart of "Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion" at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit St, Providence, through August 18), a smart, sumptuous exhibit, one of the best shows in the region this year.

Covering two centuries of men's fashion (itself a rare subject for study), it ranges from an 1820s deep blue early wool coat and pantaloons to a 2012 three-piece suit made by Japanese retail giant United Arrows from fabric depicting Hello Kitty. Relics on view include Oscar Wilde's 1899 white cotton shirt (his only surviving clothing, which remains with us because it was in the laundry when he died); Mark Twain's white cotton shirt from the turn of the 20th century; and Fred Astaire's 1930s tuxedo.

Dandyism arose during the era in which the style of modern Western men's formalwear that continues to this day was established. Manhood now required plainer, streamlined suits, more closely aligned to male anatomy. The style emerged among royals and aristocrats in the rococo years and through the revolution in 18th-century France as an antidote to extravagant confections of velvet, satin, silk, lace, ribbons, and wigs that reached their apogee in the 17th century under France's "Sun King," Louis XIV.

Modern men's formal wear was then refined by the English at the start of the 19th century, drawing on Puritanism and casual country and sporting attire, to establish trousers, frockcoats, and top hats as the Western man's uniform.

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