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.
Trailblazing 20th Century Designers
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.
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
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
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.
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.
‘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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Menswear inspired womenswear in the 1950s
Menswear inspired womenswear in the 1960s
McQueen trained as a tailor in Savile Row and applied the skills he learned crafting menswear to women’s fashion.
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.
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.’
The Highstreet follows Yves Saint Laurent
A Nod to Military
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.
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.
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.