LACMA “Reigning Men” Exhibition Curator Discussion With Monica

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015
Curated by Sharon S. Takeda, Kaye D. Spilker, and Clarissa M. Esguerra from LACMA’s Costume and Textiles department.
Thru August 21, 2016

From the press release: Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015 is a major survey exploring the history of men’s fashionable dress from the 18th to the early 21st century. Re- examining the frequent association of “fashion” with “femininity,” the five thematic sections of the exhibition’s 300-year survey—Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, and The Splendid Man—reveal that early fashion trends were informed by what men were wearing, as much as they were by women’s dress.“Through major acquisitions and generous gifts over the past 10 years, LACMA now has the strongest European and American menswear collections in the western United States,” says Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. “Reigning Men is an exciting and rare opportunity to examine the comprehensive history of men’s fashion, and we are thrilled to share the collection and scholarship with Los Angeles and beyond.”

Monica: I recently had the pleasure of spending time with Sharon S. Takeda and Clarissa M. Esguerra of LACMA’s Reigning Men exhibition. We engaged in a lively discussion about the process of putting together the vast undertaking. We also walked me through the storyboards of the five sections of the theme and discussed the objects and their cultural significance. Below are highlights from our afternoon together.

Clarissa and Sharon

Curators: This show took 5 years for us. The idea started in 2008 but 5 years ago was when we really started to get into it. When we were pulling the books to start our secondary research, coupled with the primary research of course, we saw that most of the books were pictures books, or if they were about objects it wasn’t about the objects but the runway, and so it was clear that this needed to happen. That’s what took so long, doing all the research.

Creating a major art exhibition from scratch can take anywhere from 2-3 to 5 years, and that’s normal for a major exhibition as you’re negotiating your loans; you’re doing your acquisition budget. We were really trying to build our modern 21st century collection, fill in the holes of the historic and then negotiate the loans of the things that you can’t find anywhere else.  Some of our negotiations with institutions and designers took up to two years.


Monica: What percentage is LACMA collection and what is on loan?

Curators: 90% is our permanent collection. It was a vehicle for us to really fill in the holes of our historical collection, and really pay attention to the 20th century and 21st century. It was really gratifying and challenging to work with contemporary designers, and we were able to get complete runway looks down to the socks. Some were donated and some were bought.

Monica: How you able to acquire all these benchmark male looks when so much of it just dissipates into history from being worn out (much more so than womenswear).

Curators: There were some key pieces that were extremely hard to find, like Oxford Bags. As was the Zoot Suit, supposedly the only authentic Zoot Suit we know of (read the story here). Armani was terribly difficult to find, even though it’s so modern. We tried everywhere to find Armani suits, and it was nowhere, and we finally got an email from someone saying that he had a collection of Amani suits from the 80s and 90s. He was a screenwriter who only wore Armani suits during those days.

A safari jacket, even YSL didn’t have it. They had a women’s version but not a men’s. None of the major museums that we contacted had it. Smaller museums or private collectors might have them, but they are quite hard to track down.

Other things would come up for auction. Some things, like the Macaroni Suit, were in our own collection.

Monica: How did you decide to start at that point (18th century)? How did the 300 year mark come about?

Curators: The exhibition range is 1715-2015. In our collection we don’t have much earlier than 18th century, so I think it was first a question of “what do we have in our collection?”, and that’s what first started us with the exhibition – we knew we had a very solid 18th and 19th century collection so we could pull it off and then use this exhibition as a way to build our 20th and 21st century. [The timeline] It was really [a result of] looking inwards at our own collection.

M.2010.33.12, M.2010.33.13

Monica: Is this the strongest menswear collection in any museum in the United States?

Curators: Obviously there are amazing 18th century historical collections in Europe but after this exercise we will certainly have one of the best, most comprehensive and interesting collections over this 300 year period.  Many of our colleagues, and were part of it too, had neglected men in favor of womenswear. It was just the natural arch of fashion scholarship. Through this exercise we have realized that the menswear story is just as rich and a fertile field to mine compared to fertilized field of womenswear, the stories and all of that.

When we first started we though we’re going to have to punctuate with womenswear, as we were wary of it being a blue, black and blow suit show, but we didn’t need to do that. Through this process we discovered that there’s so much variety in menswear.

Monica: Is it predominately Western?

Curators: Yes, European and American. It’s by no means totally comprehensive, but just as we were curating and deciding our story that we also self-edited out. We’re very conscious that we are in an art museum – so it can’t just be a pretty dress or suit, we talk about these garments in an art historical way, and we often like the fact that some modern designers historicize their designs to look similar to something in the 18th century, so we prioritize those designers in the museum, as we have something to put it with, and it makes our viewers and visitors think. But we do look at effects of East on Western fashions, but then also Western on Eastern fashion.


Monica: What was the process to compose the 5 thematic categories (Revolution/Evolution, East/West, Uniformity, Body Consciousness, and The Splendid Man)?

Curators: It started by doing a survey of what is in our collection. Then we pulled our favorite pieces and put them on a board. Then we had to think about the really important archetypes that we had to include, what moments in menswear that we really needed to talk about.  We had all these lists and images and it organically came together. You keep massaging and it comes together. And some great things we had to pull because it just didn’t fit.

There’s over 300 individual pieces and around 200 looks.


A final fun thing I discussed with Sharon and Clarissa is that LACMA has constructed patterns of some of the exhibition objects for the public to craft his/her own historic-likeness garments. You can find them at this link

Monica: [For the Patterns] you can’t take the objects apart so you’re kind of just trying to conceptualize how the pieces are put together?

Curators: You have to find the weave structure, use the warp and the weft to find where the seams go, it’s time intensive. I have a background in fashion design which really helps. With that knowledge of garment construction it’s actually really fun to see the evolution of construction, how you can see it in clothing that is in a collection. We took the patterns off the pieces and put them together to make sure that they fit together and that’s how we created these patterns.

Thank you to Sharon and Clarissa for their time, and congratulations on a major accomplishment. The book to accompany the exhibition is also outstanding and a treasure for any historian’s bookshelf.

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