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Vice Versa exhibition opens at the Ulster Museum

New exhibition at the Ulster Museum explores influence of menswear on women’s fashion and Vice Versa

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Men’s and womenswear from as early as the 17th century to modern designer couture have gone on display in the Ulster Museum’s newest fashion exhibition, ‘Vice Versa.’

The exhibition explores the many ways male style has been adopted by women throughout centuries of fashion history, and how this influence has at times flowed in both directions.

One designer whose work features prominently in Vice Versa is Yves Saint Laurent. The French couturier was renowned for breaking down barriers between men’s and women’s fashion throughout his career, most notably with his famous tuxedo suit for women, the chic ‘Le Smoking.’

First introduced in 1968, the ‘Le Smoking’ ensemble was inspired by the men’s smoking suit, and by gender-bending film icon, Marlene Dietrich. Though shocking at the time, the look proved so popular that Saint Laurent produced new versions of the female tuxedo throughout his long career.

The designer once stated that ‘for a woman Le Smoking is an indispensable garment with which she finds herself continually in fashion, because it is about style, not fashion. Fashions come and go, but style is forever.”

The Vice Versa exhibition displays a version of Le Smoking by the couturier dating from 1988. In the form of a long, robe-like evening dress, it is one of the most elegant iterations of ‘Le Smoking’ ever made by Saint Laurent, and it was designed for possibly his most important client – his mother, Lucienne Andree Mathieu-Saint-Laurent – making this garment a true piece of fashion history.

Androgynous outfits displayed in Vice Versa by trailblazing designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood and Rifat Ozbek, are re-imagined as original larger than life-size fashion illustrations throughout the exhibition.  Other key pieces featured in the exhibition include an exquisite eighteenth-century French silk embroidered court suit, once belonging to the 2nd Earl of Belvedere, a Qinq dynasty Chinese imperial robe, as well as outfits and accessories by Coco Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy.

The newest addition to the Ulster Museum’s fashion collection is a 3D-printed men’s double-breasted hourglass coat, designed by Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga.

Exhibition curator, Charlotte McReynolds, said this garment is one of the most disruptive to gender norms.

“It’s an important example of how womenswear is now influencing men’s fashion,” she said. “Largely unassuming, it maintains the long-held viewpoint of men’s fashion being elegant and restraining from decoration. However, uniquely, it has been 3D-printed and moulded to exaggerate the hips to create what is traditionally seen as a ‘feminine’ attribute.”

“Labels, either those assigned to gender or used to distinguish menswear and womenswear, are being challenged. Women have long embraced men’s fashion but womenswear has influenced men’s clothing too. Men are also less hesitant to wear clothing items designed for women or featuring decorations and patterns more commonly featured in womenswear.”

She adds, “These fashions of the past and present challenge our understanding of ‘his’ and hers’ clothing at a time when gender-neutral clothing labels are becoming more common.”

Vice Versa is currently on display at the Ulster Museum, Belfast.  Admission is free.

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