What do tobacco, war and inflatable plastic pants have to do with the way the modern man dresses? Far more than you might imagine.
Consider the smoking jacket. At the exhibition "Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015," opening next week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, you can discover how the symbol of the suave gentleman came to be.
We won't spoil it, but it involves the Crimean War, Turkish tobacco and the silks and tassels of Middle Eastern exoticism.
That's just one of the sartorial surprises at LACMA's 200-look wind sprint through 300 years of the male wardrobe.
Pieces date as far back as the 1720s to 1730s (a purple silk velvet jacket with button-back cuffs that use more fabric than a modern-day pair of swim trunks) and as recent as a 2015 Ozwald Boateng jacket-and-trouser ensemble made specifically for the museum.
LACMA takes this deep dive into the forces that have literally and figuratively shaped men's fashion in a different — and delightful — way.
"Everybody thinks of costume shows chronologically — that's the generally accepted presentation," says LACMA costume and textiles department curator Kaye Spilker during a recent preview of the exhibition. "But as we were working on it, we kept seeing these resonances and recurrences — like florals, for example — so we were excited to show that by arranging things thematically."
"If you give [viewers] multiple viewpoints on each theme," adds Sharon Takeda, senior curator and the head of the costumes and textiles department, "it becomes much more interesting."
Those themes — five in all — are each displayed in a different room on the second level of the museum's Broad Contemporary Art Museum building. (Commune Design designed the space, which has each room's theme reflected in the cornices and color choice.)
Revolution/Evolution explores reinvention in menswear, showing how the English macaroni of the 1770s and the French incroyable of the 1790s (both considered the dandies of their respective days), would cycle through looks, as did the Teddy boys of the 1950s, the mods of the '60s and the hippies of the '70s.
Other pieces draw the connection between the circa 1790 striped cotton sans-culotte (literally "without knee breeches") pants that symbolized French revolutionaries and the tartan bondage-strap trousers of the punk movement (Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for Seditionaries, 1976-1977) as examples of political self-expression.
This room is also where you'll find one of the exhibition's crown jewels: a rare complete zoot suit ensemble (1940-42) with pleated trousers voluminous enough to safely store a bone-in ham.
Used as an example of expressing youthful rebellion (the zoot suit was the favored look of 1930s and '40s urban youth), the acquisition is the result of a nearly decade-long search.
The East/ West room looks at the contributions made to Western dress by Eastern culture.
These include the previously mentioned smoking jacket, as well as informal house robes of 18th century Europeans inspired by Middle Eastern caftans and 20th century aloha shirts, created by Japanese settlers in Hawaii using repurposed kimono fabric.
Uniformity, which explores the connections between military uniforms and workwear and off-duty clothes, might be the most familiar territory for most visitors, touching on the military's myriad contributions to the masculine wardrobe.
These include the trench coat (World War I), the duffle coat (World War II) and a range of camouflage pieces hilariously punctuated with a fluorescent camouflage ensemble from the fall/winter 2013-2014 Jeremy Scott with Adidas collection that would only come in handy if one was hoping to hide in a bowl of jelly beans.
Body Consciousness, in taking on the topic of body-shaping garments, quickly dispenses with the notion that the desire to cinch, pad and mold the human form has historically been the province of women.
Examples here range from the somewhat subtle (think corseted linen underpants circa 1830) to the wholly satirical — this is where the inflatable pants (spring/summer 2001) by Naoki Takizawa for Issey Miyake come into the conversation.
Of particular interest here is a pair of silk men's stockings from 18th century England with lambswool padding designed to accentuate the calves, proof that men have been on board with bodyshaping for centuries.
The Splendid Man, which focuses on the excesses in menswear — over-the-top embellishments, ornate embroidery and bright colors — ends the exhibition with some of "Reigning Men's" most memorable looks.
These include the purple silk velvet number circa 1730 mentioned earlier, waistcoats from the same era festooned with metallic floral embroidery, a blue Alexander McQueen suit dripping with silver metallic thread and a yellow-and-purple colorblocked Walter Van Beirendonck suit inspired by the ultra-chic dandies of the Congo known as sapeurs.
The standout juxtaposition here is an old-school raccoon coat (circa 1925) displayed next to an Etro ensemble (fall/winter 2013-2014) that also appears to be fur. On closer examination, it turns out to be trompe l'oeil digital printing on wool.
This room is also where you'll find several looks from the hometown fashion team.
These include a Johnson Hartig for Libertine jacket and trousers festooned with mother-of-pearl buttons, a black leather motorcycling ensemble with silver details by Chrome Hearts' Richard Stark and an over-printed python skin suit by Roberto Cavalli (an Italian label, yes, but the suit is on loan from local fashion aficionado James Goldstein, who recently willed his Lautner-designed home — and overflowing clothes closet — to LACMA).
Since shifts in menswear tend to move at a nearly glacial pace, even the smallest details — the length of a cuff or height of a collar — can skew historical accuracy, and the team behind "Reigning Men" has gone to great lengths to make sure every look on display is time-period-appropriate.
A perfect example is a mannequin clad in a three-piece wool twill F. Lohmann suit with a trouser hem that ends a little higher on the leg than might seem appropriate for the era.
"I was doing research in Switzerland," explains Clarissa M. Esguerra, assistant curator of the costume and textiles department, "and found a photograph from the same year — 1911 — of a man walking alongside a woman at the horse races. So the pants are [displayed] the same length as in the vintage photo."
That attention to detail has impressed one of the best-known designers on the planet.
When John Galliano popped by LACMA for a sneak peek during a recent visit to L.A., he enthusiastically rattled off descriptions of a handful of favorite pieces from the show, including the sans-culottes, a sheer white linen tailcoat (circa 1825) and an 1845 tailcoat displayed to show how padding and silk stitching had been used to shape it.
Then the designer pointed to a mannequin dressed as an incroyable.
"The details are fantastic, bravo to the wig couturier!" Galliano said. "I've studied this period — my graduation collection was inspired by the incroyables, the sans-culottes, the French Revolution.
"But I never knew the plait [a braid of hair at the back of the head] was pinned up, I always thought it was worn down.... And lo and behold, it's historically correct!"
Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: April 10-Aug. 21. Closed Wednesdays.
Cost: General admission plus exhibition $25, children under 17 admitted free