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The influence of menswear on womenswear, and Vice Versa

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This story draws on some highlights from the fashion collection of the Ulster Museum to explore the influence of menswear on womenswear, and vice versa.

The garments featured here date from the late seventeenth century, to modern designer fashion. By looking at outfits from earlier centuries, we see that even during periods when men and women were expected to conform to very separate societal roles, their clothing often revealed threads of masculinity within the feminine, and of femininity within the masculine. This is most evident in the highly ornate and typically “beautiful” pieces of menswear from the eighteenth century held in the Ulster Museum’s fashion collection.

In contrast, modern menswear is often defined by its restraint and lack of ornamentation. The simplicity and comfort of these garments has inspired countless fashion designers to reimagine the male suit as womenswear.

Some of the trailblazing twentieth century fashion designers whose work is included here are Coco Gabrielle Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, and Demna Gvaslia for Balenciaga.

Banyan or ‘At-Home-Robe’ BELUM.T975

Early Opulence

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Noblewoman’s Dragon Robe or Longpao Late Qinq dynasty, around 1850-1912 Silk satin weave, silk embroidery

Eastern Influence

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Belvedere Court Suit 1780s Satin weave silk with silk embroidery Probably French

The Splendid Male

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1780s green silk waistcoat, with gold thread embroidery

Waistcoats

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Redingote with Polonaise Skirt, Around 1785, Striped chiné silk

Horsing Around

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Brown Suit, Wool with steel cut buttons and buckles, possibly English, 1780s

‘The Great Masculine Renunciation’

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Gentleman’s Suit, Wool frockcoat with silk waistcoat and wool trousers, Irish 1850s

Tailoring

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Gentleman’s dressing gown, Black velvet with metallic embroidery and red silk quilted lining, 1840s

Domestic Beauty

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Smoking Cap, Black velvet with embroidery and tassels, 1840s

Beauty in the Personal

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Evening Dress with Floral Embroidery, 1840s

A Feminine Contrast

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Gentleman’s Evening Suit, 1920s-1930s, McVeigh & Co. Derry/Londonderry]

Black – the “Masculine” colour

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‘Le Smoking’ Evening Dress, Silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1988

Trailblazing 20th Century Designers

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Cropped Jacket and Mini Dress Ensemble, Wool, Yves Saint Laurent Boutique, 1966

A Nod to Military

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Il Torero, or ‘The Matador’ Ensemble, Silver and gold lamé with silk shirt and cummerbund, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 1979

Dress Fancy

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Early opulence

The banyan was an informal robe worn by fashionable gentlemen at home. It was influenced by imported Asian textiles. The damask patterns on this piece include flame-like flowers, leaves and vines. Such ‘bizarre’ silks were also used for women’s attire and for home furnishings.

Image: Banyan or ‘At-Home-Robe’, 1695-1720, Fawn silk damask, Made in Europe with fabric from China BELUM.T975
Banyan or ‘At-Home-Robe’, 1695-1720, Fawn silk damask, Made in Europe with fabric from China BELUM.T975

Eastern Influence  

Dragon robes were worn on formal occasions by high-ranking members of the Chinese Imperial family during the Qing dynasty (1636-1912). Women’s robes matched their husbands’ with only slight differences.

The style of these robes remained largely unchanged throughout the Qing dynasty. Imports of Asian textiles inspired male and female fashion in Europe throughout the eighteenth century, such as banyan also featured in this story.

Donated by Sarah G. Erskine, 1976

Image: Noblewoman’s Dragon Robe or Longpao, Late Qinq dynasty, around 1850-1912, Silk satin weave, silk embroidery BELUM.T158
Noblewoman’s Dragon Robe or Longpao, Late Qinq dynasty, around 1850-1912, Silk satin weave, silk embroidery BELUM.T158
View of Noblewoman’s robe, Longpao, unfastened to reveal ‘hidden dragon’ embroidery
View of Noblewoman’s robe, Longpao, unfastened to reveal ‘hidden dragon’ embroidery
View of Noblewoman’s robe, Longpao, Qing Dynasty, detail of central dragon embroidery
View of Noblewoman’s robe, Longpao, Qing Dynasty, detail of central dragon embroidery

The Splendid Male

The embroidered coat and breeches seen here once belonged to the 2nd Earl of Belvedere, a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Ireland.

It would only have been worn for formal occasions at the Royal Court. Dress code dictated that men wore spectacular, highly decorated suits. The more sumptuous the ensemble, the more it signalled the prestige and wealth of its wearer

Waistcoats

From the 17th century until the late 19th century, waistcoats were a critical part of the fashionable man’s wardrobe. Hand-embroidered, spangled, or woven from fine silks, they could easily be swapped to help an outfit keep up with current trends.

1780s green silk waistcoat, with gold thread embroidery
1780s green silk waistcoat, with gold thread embroidery
1780s green silk waistcoat, detail of pocket with gold thread embroidery
1780s green silk waistcoat, detail of pocket with gold thread embroidery
Image: Pink and gold striped waistcoat, 1780s, Silk with gold thread and trimmed with silver sequins and silver braid, probably French
Pink and gold striped waistcoat, 1780s, Silk with gold thread and trimmed with silver sequins and silver braid, probably French

Horsing Around

A redingote was a style of gown with a wide caped collar inspired by those seen on men’s horseriding habits. Another masculine element of this piece are the tabs at the bottom of the bodice, giving the effect of a false waistcoat.

The ‘polonaise’ style of the skirt means that it has been bunched up into sections at the back, making it practical for walking outdoors. This would also have had the added benefit of allowing the wearer to show off a pair of dainty heeled shoes.

Image: Redingote with Polonaise Skirt, Around 1785, Striped chiné silk
Redingote with Polonaise Skirt, Around 1785, Striped chiné silk

‘The Great Masculine Renunciation’

During the period of the French Revolution (1789-99), the sumptuous clothing worn by the upper classes became seen as out of step with society. In reaction, menswear became increasingly sombre and restrained.

In his book ‘The Psychology of Clothes’ (1933) J.C. Flugel termed this rejection of elaborate costume as ‘the Great Male Renunciation.’ From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, fashion and ornamentation would largely be seen as the sole domain of women.

In the late 18th century gentlemen’s day wear became more sombre overall, although it could still have elements of ornamentation. The steel cut buttons on the coat seen here are purely for decoration and do not actually fasten. Instead, their purpose is to add an eye-catching touch of glamour against the dark background of the brown wool suit.

Image: Brown Suit, Wool with steel cut buttons and buckles, possibly English, 1780s
Brown Suit, Wool with steel cut buttons and buckles, possibly English, 1780s
Detail of cut steel buttons from 1780s brown wool gentleman’s suit
Detail of cut steel buttons from 1780s brown wool gentleman’s suit
Detail of cut steel buttons on back pleats of 1780s brown wool gentleman’s suit
Detail of cut steel buttons on back pleats of 1780s brown wool gentleman’s suit

Tailoring - “The most austere and ascetic of the arts”

As the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution progressed, menswear became more restrained and uniform. The frockcoat, made in dark, durable wool, dominated menswear for most of the century.

Male elegance now depended on precise measuring, accurate cutting and careful construction. Due to this, J.C. Flugel in ‘The Psychology of Clothes’ declared that from the start of the 19th century, tailoring had become “the most austere and ascetic of the arts.”

Image: Gentleman’s Suit, Wool frockcoat with silk waistcoat and wool trousers, Irish 1850s
Gentleman’s Suit, Wool frockcoat with silk waistcoat and wool trousers, Irish 1850s

Domestic Beauty

At a time when everyday fashion for men became more restrained, at-home-wear became more exotic and decorative.

Embroidered with metallic flowers, this velvet dressing gown is as decorative and sumptuous as the ladies evening dress also featured in this story. However, it would have only ever been seen by the wearer’s family and closest friends when entertaining at home.

Image: Gentleman’s dressing gown, Black velvet with metallic embroidery and red silk quilted lining, 1840s
Gentleman’s dressing gown, Black velvet with metallic embroidery and red silk quilted lining, 1840s
Detail of metallic embroidery on gentleman’s black velvet dressing gown, 1840s
Detail of metallic embroidery on gentleman’s black velvet dressing gown, 1840s
Detail of red silk quilted lining of gentleman’s black velvet embroidered dressing gown, 1840s
Detail of red silk quilted lining of gentleman’s black velvet embroidered dressing gown, 1840s

Beauty in the Personal

Many women’s fashion journals of the Victorian period included elaborate patterns for smoking caps. These were not for their own use as smoking was considered unladylike, but to present as gifts to gentlemen.

Image: Smoking Cap, Black velvet with embroidery and tassels, 1840s
Smoking Cap, Black velvet with embroidery and tassels, 1840s

A Feminine Contrast

Even as the clothes men wore in public life became more plain and restrained, womenswear retained its ornamentation in both in public and private. Eventually, fashion became seen by many as belonging to the ‘world of women.’

Image: Evening Dress with Floral Embroidery, 1840s
Evening Dress with Floral Embroidery, 1840s
Detail of embroidered bodice of black silk evening dress, 1840s
Detail of embroidered bodice of black silk evening dress, 1840s
Detail of pink and green piping on bodice of black silk evening dress, 1840s
Detail of pink and green piping on bodice of black silk evening dress, 1840s

Black – the “Masculine” colour

By the mid to late 19th century men largely avoided colourful clothing, and wore a regular uniform of blacks, browns and greys. Women, on the other hand, usually only wore black if they were in mourning.

In time, the colour’s association with menswear gave it an aura of assertiveness, and fashion-forward women began to wear black not as a sign of widowhood, but as a powerful fashion statement.

Black – From Mourning to Chic

Jays ‘Mourning Emporium’ of London specialised in mourning attire. They were keen to promote themselves as a purveyor of sombre, yet very fashionable garments.

An 1892 guide to London describes the store as the authority for ‘beautiful gowns’ for ‘deep-mourning, half-mourning’ or, amusingly, ‘one-eighth-of-an-inch mourning.

Quarter Mourning Dress, Striped silk with lace collar and cuffs, Jays of London, around 1893.
Quarter Mourning Dress, Striped silk with lace collar and cuffs, Jays of London, around 1893.
Side view of quarter mourning dress
Side view of quarter mourning dress

Avant-garde Black

This striking black and white evening coat would have been the height of fashion when it was worn in the 1910s. Its wide striped collar and loose fit reference a craze for Japanese fashion at the turn of the century.

This piece has its origins in mourning wear. It was sold in Peter Robinson of Oxford Street, once known as a ‘Court and General Mourning House.’ By the end of the 19th century Peter Robinsons had restyled itself as a source for fashionable ladies’ clothing and accessories.

Image: Evening Coat, Peter Robinsons of London, Silk satin with striped collar and cuffs, 1910s
Evening Coat, Peter Robinsons of London, Silk satin with striped collar and cuffs, 1910s

Suitable For All

By the 1920s to 30s men’s formal evening wear had crystallised into a lasting style. It consisted of a tail coat, a white waistcoat, and trousers to match. The tailcoat featured here has been immaculately padded and cut to enhance the wearer’s shape.

This elegant style has inspired countless designers of womenswear, as can be seen from the examples also discussed in this story.

Image: Gentleman’s Evening Suit, 1920s-1930s, McVeigh & Co. Derry/Londonderry
Gentleman’s Evening Suit, 1920s-1930s, McVeigh & Co. Derry/Londonderry

Trailblazing 20th Century Designers

Coco Chanel and menswear

Coco Chanel was widely known for taking inspiration from menswear, including the colours she chose for her ensembles: ‘I have said that black has it all - white too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.’

This black wool coat is deceptively simple. Deliberate slashes at the top of the arms reveal that the coat has been lined with the finest contrasting white silk.

Day Coat, Wool with patterned silk lining, Coco Chanel, 1930s
Day Coat, Wool with patterned silk lining, Coco Chanel, 1930s
Detail of pocket with bulrush pattern silk lining
Detail of pocket with bulrush pattern silk lining

Menswear inspired womenswear in the 1950s

Image: Evening Coat Dress, Black silk with oversized patterned white collar and cuffs, Eda Fraser, 1950s
Evening Coat Dress, Black silk with oversized patterned white collar and cuffs, Eda Fraser, 1950s

Menswear inspired womenswear in the 1960s

Image: Mini dress, Corded silk with cream ruffles and ‘bow tie’ decorations, 1960s
Mini dress, Corded silk with cream ruffles and ‘bow tie’ decorations, 1960s

Alexander McQueen

McQueen trained as a tailor in Savile Row and applied the skills he learned crafting menswear to women’s fashion.

Image: Blazer Mini Dress by Alexander McQueen, 1998.
Blazer Mini Dress by Alexander McQueen, 1998.

The ‘Hourglass’ Silhouette

This is one of the most recent designer additions to the Ulster Museum fashion collection, and may be the one that is most challenging to gender norms.

It is a plain black men’s coat by Balenciaga. This unassuming garment has actually been 3D printed and moulded with exaggerated ‘feminine’ hips, yet was made to be worn as menswear.

Image: 3D Printed ‘Hour Glass’ Men’s Double Breasted Coat, 3D printed foam mould fused with wool, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, 2018
3D Printed ‘Hour Glass’ Men’s Double Breasted Coat, 3D printed foam mould fused with wool, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, 2018

Yves Saint Laurent and ‘Le Smoking’

This tuxedo dress was made by Yves Saint Laurent for his mother, Lucienne Andree Mathieu-Saint Laurent, in 1988.

It is one in a long line of female variations on the man’s tuxedo that the designer produced, beginning with the first tuxedo for women ensemble he made for his Autumn-Winter 1966 collection, seen in the photograph nearby.

On the tuxedo, Saint Laurent said, ‘For a woman, the tuxedo is an indispensable garment in which she will always feel in style, for it is a stylish garment and not a fashionable garment. Fashions fade, style is eternal.’

Image: ‘Le Smoking’ Evening Dress, Silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1988
‘Le Smoking’ Evening Dress, Silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1988

The Highstreet follows Yves Saint Laurent

Image: Tuxedo Style Trouser Suit inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s example, Wool and silk, Wallis, 1970s
Tuxedo Style Trouser Suit inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s example, Wool and silk, Wallis, 1970s

A Nod to Military

Naval Gazing

Yves Saint Laurent constantly referenced men’s clothes when designing for women.

This navy outfit with gold buttons is inspired by the uniforms worn by French sailors.

Cropped Jacket and Mini Dress Ensemble, Wool, Yves Saint Laurent Boutique, 1966
Cropped Jacket and Mini Dress Ensemble, Wool, Yves Saint Laurent Boutique, 1966
Detail of gold button
Detail of gold button

Earning their stripes

Though richly sequinned and glamourous, these two minidresses by Yves Saint Laurent have a surprisingly everyday origin: the French striped sailor shirt.

Black and Gold Striped Minidress, Sequins on silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1966
Black and Gold Striped Minidress, Sequins on silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1966
Yellow, Navy, Green & Black Striped Minidress, Sequins on silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1966
Yellow, Navy, Green & Black Striped Minidress, Sequins on silk, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, 1966

Dress Fancy

Several modern designers have subverted gender roles in fashion by introducing elements of ‘dressing up’ into their garments. The pieces seen here all defy typical ideas of men’s and women’s fashion in a playful manner.

This outfit was inspired by the designer’s love of the artist Pablo Picasso and all things Spanish. It is a glamourised version of the traditional male bull-fighter’s ensemble, re-imagined as womenswear.

Image: Il Torero, or ‘The Matador’ Ensemble, Silver and gold lamé with silk shirt and cummerbund, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 1979
Il Torero, or ‘The Matador’ Ensemble, Silver and gold lamé with silk shirt and cummerbund, Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 1979