Curating across Material: Reflections on “Reigning Men” and “Cross-Pollination” – by Brittany Luberda

Fig. 1. Installation view of Reigning Men at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Photo: David Torrence. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

Revolution confronted the visitor in “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015,” an exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that was on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum from June 25 to September 17, 2017 (Fig. 1). In the first gallery, a mannequin holding the French flag wore the blue Carmagnole jacket, striped trousers, and red Phrygian cap of a sans-culotte (Fig. 2). Around him, mannequins from multiple moments in European and American history donned hallmarks of resistance fashion, from a punk leather jacket safety-pinned with the band name “Ramones” (c. 1978-1983) to a wide-legged zoot suit of the late Harlem Renaissance (1940-1942). Across the museum, a pendant exhibition, “Cross-Pollination: Flowers in 18th-century European Porcelain and Textiles,” which ran in Saint Louis from May 26 to November 26, 2017, presented botanical designs on dresses, silks, and porcelains from the 1730s to the French Revolution. Among its objects was a teapot decorated with gilt ribbons and geometric florals bearing the mark of Rue Thiroux, Marie-Antoinette’s Parisian porcelain manufactory (1780-1785). It sat near a panel of cranberry silk with leopard-spotted stripes and symmetrical garlands (1765-1770, Fig. 3). The rigid lines and composed florals ornamenting both objects marked the end of a transition from naturalism to neoclassicism in botanical patterns during the eighteenth century.

Fig. 2. Man’s Jacket (Carmagnole), France, 1790-1805. Linen plain weave, center back length: 49.2 cm; and Sans-culotte Trousers, France, c. 1790. Cotton plain weave, inseam length: 68.6 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Fig. 3. Installation view of Cross-Pollination at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Photo: David Torrence. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

“Reigning Men” and “Cross-Pollination” approached historical design from two different conceptual poles: cross-chronological and inter-material, respectively. The exhibition of men’s fashion presented some 150 pieces from three centuries. Eighteenth-century suits, uniforms, court attire, and loungewear most often designated the introduction of a stylistic trend, material source, or social phenomenon repeated in later centuries. “Cross-Pollination,” by contrast, looked at the intertwined histories of two media at a single moment. Visual affinities in decoration were grounded by studies of scientific gardens, botanical illustrations, and private collections that jointly inspired textile and porcelain designers. Bounded by the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the close look at a single theme—botanical representation—across two media made visual the encompassing presence of eighteenth-century decoration in the domestic interior. Furthermore, concrete connections such as shared factory locations and resources revealed the potential for future scholarship contextualizing textile fashions—many represented in “Reigning Men”—with other media from the same period.

Fig. 4. Installation view of Reigning Men. The Macaroni ensemble is at the far left; the Vivienne Westwood is the third from the left. Photo: David Torrence. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

Fig. 5. Installation view of Reigning Men. Photo: David Torrence. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

Fig. 6. Detail of installation view of Reigning Men, showing jacket by Sarah Burton from the “Pomp and Circumstance” collection. Photo: David Torrence. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

“Reigning Men” emerged through a significant gift of men’s fashion to the LACMA Textile and Costume Collection in 2007. Augmented by further acquisitions, the exhibition, organized by Sharon Takeda, Kaye Spilker, and Clarissa Esguerra, developed with a mind to remedy the dearth of museum-quality men’s attire in print and on display.[1] Interspersing fashion from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the display charted a history of broad themes in menswear across time using examples found in LACMA’s collection. The exhibition was divided into five galleries titled: Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, and The Splendid Man.[2] These thematic spaces were further refined with subcategories of garments that mapped recurring styles, material sources, and iconic looks from diverse decades and origins. In the Revolution/Evolution gallery, for example, a “Macaroni” sporting a tight salmon waistcoat, pea-green slim-cut jacket, nosegay, and dress sword epitomized the taste for French fashion at the English court in the 1760s and 1770s (Fig. 4).[3] An adjacent 1991 ensemble from Vivian Westwood’s inaugural men’s collection mimicked the Macaroni’s pastel palette, fitted breeches, and floral accoutrement with a photo-printed rose lapel nodding to Paris as a historic capital of menswear. Nearby, the exuberant silhouette of an “Incroyable” recreated the exaggerated revival of pre-Revolutionary attire assumed by this rebellious Directory subculture with a mannequin dressed in a long, cut tailcoat, multiple layered vests, laced breeches, unkempt mane, and walking stick (which doubled as a weapon against political foes) (Fig. 5, left). Beside him, Walter Van Beirendonck’s ensemble from his “Revolution” collection reinterpreted this eighteenth-century countercultural concept with layers of bombastic floral patterns and skewed scales for the cuffs, lapel, and necktie (Fall/Winter 2000-2001, Fig. 5, right).

The following gallery, East/West, explored the relationship between Asian and European or American design. One superb loan, a gold and black jacket designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen’s “Pomp and Circumstance” collection (Spring/Summer 2011), took its inspiration from colors and compositions found on early modern Coromandel screens (Fig. 6).[4] The lacquer-like silhouettes of Chinese pagodas juxtaposed with Japanese cranes, rendered by metallic thread on ink-black satin, repeated pastiches of generic Eastern elements integrated into eighteenth-century porcelains, tapestries, textiles, and furniture. Similar histories of material transportation were found in French costumes made from Indian textiles and colonial suits, notably prioritizing Eastern influence on Western design. In the subsequent galleries, business suits, military outfits, and hunting jackets conveyed the mutability of Uniformity on a variety of battlefields including the courtroom, red carpet, hunting range, and trenches. Body Consciousness used an array of revealing undergarments, swimwear, and tight tailoring to expose the pressure on men to contour their bodies to meet a slim or fit physique. The final room, The Splendid Man, showcased fetching fur coats, lustrous velvets, and applied details of wealthy men-about-town. Built around one museum collection, the patchwork of subjects and subcategories in “Reigning Men” displayed a wide body of material. The thematic groupings opened discussions on the interplay between historical and contemporary styles through a social, material, and production-based lens.

Fig. 7. Installation view of Cross-Pollination. Photo: David Torrence. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

Curated by Genevieve Cortinovis, assistant curator of decorative arts and design, “Cross-Pollination” addressed a history of eighteenth-century design across two media (Fig. 7). In ten cases, two dresses as well as French, English, and Italian silk panels recently acquired by the museum were paired with period porcelains. Their shared botanical decoration ranged from the scientifically exact to the imaginatively abstract. Opening the single-gallery installation, two Derby figurines whose costumes were decorated with lively floral sprays embody period fashion. The bucolic statuettes complemented a silk panel of slender stems and detailed blooms based on European blossoms, a departure from the Asiatic florals often found on imported textiles and porcelain. In the adjacent display, single stems became increasingly more dynamic as the designer’s compositions used myriad botanical varieties (Fig. 8). In the early eighteenth century, silk and ceramic designers looked to newly published illustrations of Old and New World flowers for accurate depictions of botanical species.[5] Scientific gardens, like the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, were so popular that Nicholas Sprimont (1713-1771) founded a luxury porcelain studio, the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory, there in the mid-1740s. His bulbous Chelsea tureen, one of only a few surviving, is covered with bursting bouquets and buzzing insects of the types found in English gardens. These lifelike botanicals linked well-dressed diners with their estate gardens and their formal tables, blurring a division between self and nature.

Fig. 8. Installation view of Cross-Pollination, showing two dishes from the Chelsea Porcelain Factory (c. 1760) juxtaposed with an English silk textile panel (c. 1745). Photo: Brittany Luberda. Permission courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

As the century progressed, the verdant naturalism of the 1750s retreated into more organized arrangements of florals in festoons, baskets, and winding vines. By the 1780s, petals and leaves were simplified into merely dotted geometric patterns around silk bodices and ceramic lids, dress petticoats and cup handles (Fig. 3). This analogous decorative vocabulary may have resulted in part from workshop locations. In 1776, the Queen’s Factory on Rue Thiroux, for example, took over a building housing a linen manufactory that had specialized in imitating silk design.[6] Studying the botanical patterns on both fashionable textiles and fashionable porcelains revealed a mutual evolution of taste, an Enlightenment fascination with categorizing nature, and the holistic landscape of eighteenth-century interiors.

Paired under one roof, “Cross-Pollination” and “Reigning Men” presented aesthetics of eighteenth-century design for cross-examination in the context of its forms, materials, and persistence over time. Both exhibits’ eighteenth-century objects visualized period palettes, taste, and production processes. For example, the rise of naturalistic European florals on porcelain, known as “Deutsche Blumen,” responded to Chinese export porcelains featuring Asiatic flowers. Likewise, a “bizarre silk” waistcoat adapted from Asian textile designs in the LACMA installation was an early modification of foreign florals to appear like fresh-cut flowers (c. 1715). A solid, saturated velvet coat from the 1720s-1730s echoed the early eighteenth-century taste for monochrome Asian porcelains. Further, the exhibited textures of embroidered waistcoats and metal buttons brought to mind the layering of painterly grounds, gilding, and applied detail of sumptuous porcelains, especially those mounted in gilt bronze.

Fig. 9. LEFT: At-home Robe with Matching Waistcoat (detail), France, 1720s. Silk satin with silk supplementary-weft patterning bound in twill (lampas), waistcoat center back length: 141.61 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. © Museum Associates/LACMA.
CENTER: Pot-pourri Feuilles de Mirte or à Feuillages (one of three pieces, detail), c. 1762. Soft-paste porcelain, 27.9 x 17.1 x 13.3 cm. The Frick Collection, New York © The Frick Collection.
RIGHT: Coat with Matching Vest (detail), France, c. 1800. Silk figured plain weave with silk warp-float and self-weft patterning with silk embroidery. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Applying these similarities across time and media, the multiple surfaces of painted marble, lace, and latticework with sculptural flowers in works like the Frick Collection’s Pot-pourri Feuilles de Mirte from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory enter into a dialogue with the lace patterns of LACMA’s 1720s banyan and the floating threads and embroidered embellishment on a waistcoat from circa 1800 (Fig. 9).[7] Consequently, questions emerge over how and why the imitation of surfaces, ornament, and flowers moves across space during the eighteenth century. In addition to florals, sources which inspired reinterpretation in fashion, like the lacquer screens reimagined in Sarah Burton’s Coromandel coat, reappear in objects like a pair of 1790s Sèvres “vases chinoises” indebted to Japanese screens. The same transferences exist between a mid-century light blue suit trimmed in gold, which complemented both bleu céleste grounds on vessels produced at the Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory and interior decorative wall panels seen in the Louvre’s Dangé sitting room.

At the conclusion of “Reigning Men,” three garments by designers from Japan, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates stood in a formation titled “Contemplating the Future.” Their inclusion foreshadowed a reexamination of collecting and curating more global histories of menswear. While recent years have seen a number of decorative arts and textiles exhibits dedicated to a single manufactory or private collection, these two exhibits together make clear the potency and potential of comparing design across materials, between sources, and beyond timelines. A thematic and inter-material approach, as seen in “Cross-Pollination,” captures the hybrid nature of eighteenth-century design and shows that the century’s expansive influence can be celebrated by crossing disciplinary lines.

Brittany Luberda is a specialist in eighteenth-century decorative arts and Research Assistant in Decorative Arts and Design at the Saint Louis Art Museum


[1] Sharon S. Takeda, Kaye D. Spilker, and Clarissa Esguerra, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2016).

[2] The Saint Louis Art Museum installation, curated by Zoe A. Perkins and Genevieve Cortinovis, displayed approximately 150 of the 200 articles exhibited in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art installation.

[3] “Decked out in Pink and Green,” in Takeda et al., Reigning Men, 15-16.

[4] Takeda et al., Reigning Men, 104-105.

[5] See Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, The Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain 1710-50 (New York: The Frick Collection in association with D. Giles Ltd, 2008), 465. For example, between 1742 and 1745, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory purchased 1,025 plates illustrated by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) from Wilhelm Weinmann’s four-volume floral treatise, Phytanthoza Iconographia.

[6] Régine de Plinval de Guillebon, La Porcelaine à Paris Sous le Consulat et l’Empire (Geneva: Droz, 1985), 140.

[7] Marcelle Brunet, The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue, vol. 7, Porcelains: Oriental and French (New York: The Frick Collection, 1974), 246. She writes, “The dominant pink ground of the vases is overlaid throughout with blue, creating on the lid, neck, and bottom molding a marbled effect of jagged diagonal streaks, and on the body of the vase a play of motifs, direct or in reserve, imitating Flemish and Valenciennes lace in artful and varied tracery generously enhanced with gold.”


Cite this note as: Brittany Luberda, “Curating across Material: Reflections on ‘Reigning Men’ and ‘Cross-Pollination’,” Journal18 (October 2017),

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