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Strutting Their Stuff

I thought I'd learned a lot about men's fashion by living for a decade and a half with a member of the species. Men's clothes, to begin with, are limited in type. If you are a reader of "Vogue Homme," you might own a Jean Paul Gaultier skirt, and if you are a reader of "Maxim" you might own more than one trucker hat, but these are exceptions to the general Rule of Three: you got your pants, you got your jacket, and you got your shirt, which goes in between the first two, unless you're a rap star, and then all bets are off. Given the restricted field of play, it is the tiniest details that matter: whether or not the cuffs on a suit jacket actually button, whether or not the stitching on the neckline of a cashmere sweater contrasts with the color of the wool, the width of a pants hem. So sayeth my husband. Of course, this is a man who finds shopping to be an onerous duty, undertaken only when ones khakis are in shreds or ones very plain black shoes must be replaced by a new pair of very plain black shoes. Why on earth would I ever trust him?

My re-education process was kick-started yesterday when I spent several hours at an amazing exhibition of men's fashions from the 18th century to the present at the Musee de la Mode in Paris. The show opens with a pair of taxidermied peacocks. One often forgets that it is the male of the species that is beautiful and ornamented, while the female is dull as dishwater. I tried not to take it personally. The show proceeds chronologically, starting with the development of the "habit a la francaise," the forerunner of the man's three-piece suit, which became fashionable under the reign of the Sun King, he of the very high, powdered hair and fussy, skin-tight breeches, worn while prowling the similarly ornamented corridors of Versailles. This garment underwent numerous transformations during the Age of Enlightenment, sparking the inventiveness of tailors, silk producers, even button makers. Some of the latter reminded me of miniature Op Art mandalas in various shades of fuschia and bronze. And the embroideries! Entire bucolic scenes of happy peasants milking happy cows! Dahlias, roses, jonquils, gardens everywhere! The varieties of fabrics and the lavishness of the handiwork truly boggled the mind. The show was filled with all sorts of clever juxtapositions: an array of pre-Revolutionary taffeta caps paired with a contemporary ski hat made out of a child's cable-knit sweater; diamond shoe buckles Harry Winston could have only dreamed of paired with over-the-top white rubber Nikes; heavily embellished swords, including one decorated with real Wedgewood cameos, paired with a Louis Vuitton soccer ball. After a while, you couldn't tell the Gucci dressing gowns, with their decadent, kimono-like designs, from their swoony 18th century counterparts. And to think, we thought we invented metrosexuals in the 21st century! Male fashion victims will no doubt cheer Vivienne Westwood's royal blue satin clown suit; Walter van Beirendonck's transparent pants tucked into ski boots, worn to best advantage with a red fright wig; John Galliano's take on tribal warrior meets the cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show; and Comme des Garcons's relatively restrained pink pajamas as outerwear. But among the contemporary offerings on view, none was more telling than a single, documentary photograph of a group of young, African-American males showing off their tattoos, cornrows, ripped pecs, nipple piercings, and elaborate gold medallions. Here was proof, in full, living color, that clothes make the man, even when he's only half-dressed. I guess this means my husband still has a long way to go.

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