Sunday, May 8, 2016

LACMA Zen Koan: It Rains. It Reigns

Do we detect a theme? Los Angeles' drought conditions has inspired LACMA to turn on the tap full force.

First it was the Rain Room, still packing them in with promises of an entertainment with the weather. I personally prefer a tent in the Sierras under a downpour, but a few more ions are better than no ions at all. Even when the black-garbed (repels water!) masses were standing in line in BCAM, the Costume and Textile folks were suiting up over 20 be-wigged mannequins for the exhibition.

LACMA’s new exhibition, Reigning Men, attempts to present 300 years of men’s fashion (read “couture”) impact on white, Euro-centric culture. It is not a survey of menwear from bearskins and togas to kilts and spacesuits. There is an assumption of elegance which may or may not be shared equally across the region’s highly multi-cultural – ethnic population. It was a monumental undertaking. 
To illustrate the later, one of the guests, ostensibly a member of the media as it was a preview for journalists, was overheard by this writer sharing her recent experience dealing with getting from here-to-there: “There are such interesting people on the train!” Begs one to inquire whether she has skipped the Prius and Uber phases and gone straight to LACMA via METRO (stop for which won’t really be accessible for years.)

This takes me to the exhibition of some 200 maniquins (whitish skin) with fascinating whitish hairdoos ranging from peaked–and-powdered wigs to piked “mohawks” constructed of tailor batting and styled by top designer in the film industry. There is a lot of information on the “tombstones” demonstrating the curatorial staff’s deep research into the styles of the periods in this not-necessarily-chronological exhibition. It was at the first maniquin, a (nationality) dandied up in a style noted as “Macaroni” (left), referring to the Italian impact on young British gents of the 18th Century. When I walked into the exhibition, I expected to hear the theme song from Hair, but instead, after seeing our Yankee Doodle Dandy I opted for "... stuck a feather in his hat and called it ...” or even Cohan & Cagney's opus, "... real live nephew of my Uncle Sam ..."
One of his neighbors had an entire long stemmed floral arrangement stuck into the top and out through a few holes below within the vertical row of very large buttonholes. This is the geneises of a boutinier, sans the lapel which we normally see (if at all). My mother says if there’re candle sticks or a vase on the dining room table, there should be lighted candles and flowers in them.

To discuss the draping of cloth over human body parts, one needs to name those parts, such as derriere, here called “bum.” I never used that word before, rather, “backside” or the more jovial, “tuchas”, as in “tuchas aufn tish”, which means get on with it.

Likewise, one can learn the dervation of the word “tuxedo”, as in Tuxedo Park”, a hoity-toity area near Gotham where the super rich hung out in formal attire. Now, anyone can get a tux, even rent one to look upper class, much as folks in the upper echelons can buy ripped jeans and renditions of longshoremens and sailors shirts, military camo and punk leathers, all of which are represented.

I used to work in a department store and, one Christmas holiday gift-geddon, was stationed behind the “mens furnishings” counter. My domaine consisted of ties (bow and straight), handkerchiefs, jewelery (tie tacks, tie clips, cuff links and shirt studs, wallets, scarves, and, as it was in the East, gloves.

But, honestly, who were these men and why doesn't the title of the exhibition provide important reference to the fact that these men were a real specific group, and perhaps not even of parallel social status. For example, there was not an example of a "courtier" -- perhaps a Secretary of State under Reagan of Obama, dressed for a state dinner.

Men and hats ... what can be said about them? Many of the maniquins were sporting them. My dad wore a brimmed hat to work (in his Saville Row and Brooks Brothers style) for many, many years; he even had a full head of hair well into his 80s. One day, on the Philadelphia subway, someone stole it off his head and he never took the subway again. Today’s insecure gents will go bareheaded with formal wear, but think their baseball caps and other headgear are foolin’ us. But I can’t criticize, as I’ve never experienced baldness.

This brings us to be speaking about bespoke, made-to-order. According to Merriam-Webster ( in the English language of yore, the verb bespeak had various meanings, including "to speak," "to accuse," and "to complain." In the 16th century, bespeak developed a new meaning,"to order or arrange in advance." I would imagine that whoever first said this was not speaking as we do today.

I will have to go back to see if there is any mention of shatnes, the Jewish prohibition (from the Torah ... don’t question) against wearing cloth that is made from the combination of wool and linen. It pertains to men’s clothing as well as women’s and children’s, so maybe it didn’t make the cut. I would think, however, that such a prestigious exhibition should include clothing worn by male clergy, gorgeous robes of cardinals and bishops, as well as that of the ultra orthodox Jewish Satmar men with their mink fur hats, brocade coats, white knicker sox and pantaloons. You can easily see this every shabbos in Beverly/La Brea area.

Finally, but not really, this brings me to the matter of androgyny. There are many outfits that I would like to be able to wear, and why not? The other part of my brain wants to know what about reigning women’s fashions so captivates men that they will go to no expense or discomfort to slip into something a little more ... what? Is this a good reason to undergo hormone treatment and surgery? Look at all the fabulous clothing guys have!

I must confess that I would have enjoyed a section on the cross-over-and-back of women's  fashions leaning toward the male power-suit (think Coco Channel) and another on female drag. Where do those guys get those awful shoes in giant-size? This particular interest me because perhaps while there may be a desire for someone born into the male gender to be attracted to women's clothing for aesthetic purposes and to work out one's transgender identity. (Rhinestones, dahling! Oooh! Look at that boa! Where DID you get those shoes?) The last thing I would do is to undergo sex reassignment just to have gaudy clothing. Most of this was awful without the pain of surgery.