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Men’s fashion gets respect at RISD’s dandy show

Installations of men’s jackets at RISD’s exhibit.

Installations of men’s jackets at RISD’s exhibit.

Could the Rhode Island School of Design exhibition “Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion” have arrived at a more appropriate moment?

The exploding popularity of fashion exhibitions has not gone unnoticed by museums. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum experienced long lines and blockbuster attendance with their Alexander McQueen and film fashion exhibitions, respectively. Last summer, there were more than 40 fashion-related exhibitions around the world as museums were turned into red carpets for the designs of Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Louboutin.

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But what has been lacking in these shows — and many others — is an exclusive focus on menswear. You can spot the occasional window pane plaid suit jacket or trousers littered among the skirts, but menswear as an artform has remained tucked away and forgotten behind brocade gowns. The tide is changing — The Met is currently showing “Punk: Chaos to Couture” which features both women’s and men’s clothing — but the shift has been slow.

RISD’s “Artist/Rebel/Dandy” rectifies some of the oversight by specifically looking at the innovative garments and bespoke clothing often worn by a category of well-mannered and refined men who were once defined (at least in the 19th century) by derogatory terms such as “milksop,” “cream puff,” or “pantywaist.” While the slurs and antiquated descriptions have fallen away, the fine craftsmanship and flair of the dandy’s wardrobe has not.

“It’s tricky,” said show curator Laurie Brewer. “Because the attention has always been on the flashier women’s pieces, information on men’s clothes is much harder to come by. In fact, many important pieces have simply been tossed out.”

Dandies, as a distinct fashion movement, can be traced back to George “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840). There were men who fell into the category before Brummell, but none had the aplomb to claim they took five hours a day to dress or polished their boots with champagne. Brewer said there are no known pieces from Brummell’s wardrobe. There is a meticulously crafted coat produced by a tailor Brummell patronized in the RISD show, however.

No matter how they are regarded, the dandy and his relationship to his clothes is something that the RISD curators see as important as art itself. These are men who are defining both themselves and their world by ascots and plaid vests.

Despite the dearth of historically important dandy wardrobes, Brewer and co-curator Kate Irvin scoured museums, and approached the dandies themselves, to obtain rare pieces.

But Christian Chensvold , founder of the website Dandyism.net, points out that a dandy is more than a well-dressed man. “The magic of dandyism resides in the interplay between the dandy’s temperament and his appearance,” Chensvold writes on his website.

He contends that a dandy isn’t just someone who dresses well — therefore he rejects the idea that many current celebrities are dandies. Instead, he sees a dandy as a package of personality and appearance. A dandy speaks eloquently and spends his free time immersed in cultural and intellectual pursuits. He even offers a quiz on his website to determine if you are a dandy.

Rose Callahan, "Doran Wittelsbach," San Francisco, 2009.

“I think the real dandies are people we don’t know,” Chensvold said in an e-mail. “In other words, they’re not famous, though they may be celebrated to an extent, such as the English writer Nick Foulkes. I’m also biased in that I see the legacy of dandyism as largely literary in nature, and I’m more likely to vote for men such as Foulkes and Tom Wolfe.”

The RISD exhibit co-curators were looking to create an experience that goes deeper than the threadbare adage “The clothes make the man.” They have pulled together a timeline of dandyism that connects the dots from a portrait of 18th-century French dandy Auguste Vestris up to a delicate spider silk knit tee constructed by Icelandic designer Sruli Recht. The common theme throughout is flair and fashion bravery not commonly seen on the street.

“There are just these wonderful narratives. These are stories that I think we really see as connecting the audience to the charged nature of these pieces of clothing,” Irvin said. “They’re actually lived in and worn by someone.”

Dandy extraordinaire Oscar Wilde’s famous jackets no longer exist, but a dress shirt from the witty author was sent to be laundered at the time that Wilde died in his hotel in 1900. It was returned to the family many years later, and is now owned by his grandson. The simple white cotton shirt is seen by the RISD curators as an important item to include in the show given that is the last known item of clothing from one of the world’s best-known dandies.

The modern bespoke suits, classic illustrations, historically important shoes, and current photographs are arranged without regard to era, as if the museum decided to host a cocktail party for gentlemen from the past 300 years who have a knack for flawlessly putting themselves together. Finally, Andy Warhol has a chance to rub shoulders sartorially with a George, Prince of Wales, who was ordering custom morning gowns in the 1780s. It’s easy to imagine that these two dandies would breezily trade quips about their attire.

A man’s greatcoat in dark blue facecloth, 1803.

“That is one of the things that we were really aiming to show is that it has often been described as superficial,” Irvin said. “We want to show it as the opposite of that. It’s profound, intellectual relationship that these men had to their clothing.”

The impetus of the show began with the school’s own fashion collection. Students visiting the collection were shown donations from former RISD professor Richard Merkin. A painter and illustrator by trade, Merkin, who passed away in 2009, was also highly regarded for his fashion acumen.

“Those Merkin pieces prompted us to take a survey of our menswear collection,” said Brewer. “We took an entire summer to catalog and research what we had in our own collection. We found many, many pieces that had taken second fiddle to the womenswear collection.”

But Irvin and Brewer were looking for more than fancy suits that once belonged to well-bred men of the past. They wanted a personality-driven show, and therefore included clothes from punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren, who once designed a clothing line with Vivienne Westwood, and director John Waters. Waters is a modern day dandy who has no problem strutting in a white suit after Labor Day or deliberately wearing distressed suits designed by Comme des Garcons.

“The dandies were pushing boundaries and challenging boundaries,” Irvin said. “Whether it’s political change or artistic change. There is a lineage over time. The creativity of the individual was also a factor in our decision to include them in the show.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther
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