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Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion at the RISD Museum

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Waris Ahluwalia, 2011. Norman Jean Roy, photographer. © Norman Jean Roy.
Courtesy of The House of Waris.

If there were any doubts that men’s fashion has been the center of attention in recent years, let the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design dispel any of them. In the last two years, museums across the country have reflected in their exhibitions the current obsession with studying and collecting menswear. The RISD Museum is no exception. On April 28, the museum opened a groundbreaking men’s fashion exhibit heavily drawn from its world renowned costume and textiles collection. Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion features more than 200 objects that explore the figure of the dandy and the role of craftsmanship in menswear.

In September 2012, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology organized Ivy Style, an exhibition that examined the "Ivy League Look" and its continued influence on menswear today. Fashion exhibits like RISD’s own Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity among many other exhibits exploring fashion history, have focused primarily on women’s fashion with a few menswear objects scattered throughout. This as we have seen, is changing to the delight of many menswear enthusiasts out there.

Rather than presenting a chronological history of menswear in context to the development of the dandy figure, curators stage an impressive exhibition thematically arranged by placing George "Beau" Brummell (1778-1840), fashion’s "first" dandy and Richard Merkin, a RISD painting professor from 1963-2005 and self-described "professional dandy" (and the main inspiration for this exhibit) as the central figures from which many elements in Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion originate and fall back on.

Celebrating the many incarnations of the dandy—that figure who affects extreme elegance in clothes and manners and possesses a discriminating taste for top-notch sartorial ensembles—Artist/Rebel/Dandy carefully lays out and with great success, the various definitions and representations of the dandy figure throughout history. From the vulgar, artificial, pretentious, intellectual and rebellious to the effeminate and flamboyant homosexual man obsessed with clothes and an aficionado of wearing corsets (as depicted in Lacing a Dandy, 1819 etching on wove paper from the collection of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University), these definitions were constantly at the back of my mind in the time I spent looking and gasping at the many ensembles and garments on display.

Through its various themes—Relics, Revolutionaries, Romantics, Historians, Connoisseurs, and Explorers—we’re constantly reminded of fashion’s ability to craft and mold an individual’s identity and personality. The exhibit shatters many stereotypes, including the notion, as silly as it sounds, that color, lush prints and bold patterns are something men with even the slightest interest in fashion are afraid to wear. It is unapologetic and with good reason, it presents men of all shapes and colors, well traveled and influenced by world cultures who also happen to be obsessed with fashion.

Sartorial Anarchy #5, 2012. Iké Udé, photographer. © Iké Udé. Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery + Iké Udé.

In Explorers, curators introduce us to the social and geographic boundaries that challenge the dandy to go on a journey of self-discovery. Four photographs from the Sartorial Anarchy series by Nigerian-born, New York-based artist Iké Udé capture the essence of what it means to be an "explorer dandy." The photographs on display in this exhibit depict men with exaggerated regal-like postures dressed in brightly colored patterns and prints. They reference the continued influence of the dandy in men's fashion worldwide.

Artist/Rebel/Dandy is an ode to the men who aren’t afraid to venture into new sartorial territories and acknowledge the influences of the "original" dandy image in their own style. The exhibition celebrates fashion history nerds whose sartorial knowledge is often cited as historical references in their own personal style as well. Some of these nerds are the menswear and street style bloggers many of us followers have gotten to "know" over the years. FromThe Sartorialist, Street Etiquette, Put This On, The Dandy Portraits,Backyard Bill, Dapper Lou and even the now on-hiatus Fuck Yeah Menswear—a blog that satirizes men’s fashion and our obsession with it, with a lyricism that only fashion’s most dedicated followers can come up with—these bloggers also have claimed their place in the development of the dandy through history in this exhibit at RISD.

There’s so much to love about a menswear exhibit of epic proportions whose central figure is a man from a prominent social and aristocratic circle. And rather than focus on this particular aspect of the dandy, Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion celebrates the cultural diversity that is so often overlooked in fashion exhibits today. Every one of the objects, from clothing, textiles to works on paper and paintings in this exhibit are worth savoring time and again. Artist/Rebel/Dandy is a refreshing exhibit with a much needed international perspective and scholarship on the figure of the dandy and its influence in menswear history. The exhibit, as many people have already pointed out, is exhaustive, but this only means that multiple trips to this gem of a museum will be worth every minute of your time looking at all the objects and ensembles on display. I can't wait to go back to RISD and see this exhibit again and again.


Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion is on view April 28 through Sunday, August 18, 2013 at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

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About Author

Anulfo AKA The Evolving Critic is a preservationist and blogger with a strong interest in architectural history, urbanism, and the parallels between fashion and architecture. He holds degrees in Tourism Planning and Development from the University of New Hampshire and in the History of Art and Architecture from Boston University. Anulfo has written for the Boston Society of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He oversaw BR&S's blog, Our Daily Red, from 2012-14.

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