Walking into the Philadelphia Museum of Art's latest fashion exhibition, "The Peacock Male: Exuberance of Masculine Dress," I expected a collection of mostly tailored suits, possibly sprinkled with a hint of color and a dash of dandyism.
Instead, I was greeted by a turquoise-sequined peacock costume, courtesy of Philadelphia's Mummers, complete with 12-foot-tall feathers and painted leather shoes.
And on the other side of the Joan Spain Gallery was a phenomenal Yohji Yamamoto black wool coat - drab in comparison, until a peek at the lining revealed a silk-screened mermaid with the face of Marilyn Monroe.
It was a riot of color, a virtual explosion of male self-expression that paid homage to everything from Liberace-worthy costumes to the garb of Joe Sixpack - one exhibit included mannequins dressed in oversized jeans that showed off Hanes boxers. Another was decked out in a Phillies ensemble: baseball cap, T-shirt and shorts - a bit much, but Phillies gear is a form of tribal wear for men. Seriously.
"This is a discursive walk through the history of male fashion," said Timothy Rub, the director and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Vanity is not gender-specific. Men have a propensity to show off in many different ways. The result can be amusing, impressive, juvenile, and often a lot of fun."
This exhibition, which chronicles more than 300 years of Western men's attire, comes at an interesting time in fashion. Although guys have made many fashion splurges in past decades - the zoot suit of the 1940s, blue suede shoes of the 1950s, even the diamonds and bellbottoms of the 1970s - millennial men, even macho ones, seemingly have society's approval to dress up more often, not just on special occasions.
Over the last several years, men have become more comfortable adding a bit of personalized oomph to their outfits, dressing in slimmer suits a la Bucks County native and menswear designer Thom Browne. They also don't mind searching for the perfect French cuffs or pink pocket squares.
Examples are everywhere, from Jay-Z to Kanye West, the boastful rapper who brags in his songs that he "shops so much, I should speak Italian." Even sportscasters, including Cris Collinsworth, Shannon Sharpe, and Deion Sanders, sit behind their desks like, well, peacocks, in tailored suits, bold and pastel-colored shirts, and wide-spread collars with thick tie knots. Now if that doesn't say "look at me," what does?
"Men and women both use fashion to communicate, but men communicate different messages," explained Kristina Haugland, the exhibition's curator. "When they are wearing an expensive tailored suit, that shows you can afford the very best. Men communicate their financial position and their power. These are important ways they fit into society."
It took Haugland about a year to curate the exhibition comprising more than 100 pieces of clothing, although most of the pieces are part of the museum's permanent collection.
There are exceptions: Welsh musician John Cale gave the museum high-fashion runway pieces like the Yamamoto coat, red patent-leather sneakers by Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo, and a 2001 tailored jacket by Issey Miyake.
One grouping of 18th-century menswear - before the Industrial Revolution changed the masculine ideal from embroidered jackets and lace and patterned stockings to subdued tailored looks and starched linen - indicates one of the first times it was OK for all men to strut their stuff. On display is a tan suit with embroidered floral vines that once belonged to Gen. Jonathan Williams of Philadelphia. Frilly is an understatement.
In the Mummers section is a costume that pays homage to Uncle Sam - also replete with sparkle - and a Mummer's costume from 1829 adorned with devils carrying pitchforks. In the section about work and leisure, a horsehide coat is a head-turner, right next to a vintage University of Pennsylvania blue and red sweater. (I'd wear that now.)
The boldest section, however, is the one depicting 20th-century men's fashion. It is the most expansive, and it proves that ever since the 1950s, designers have tried to push men out to the fashion ledge - with double-knit polyester and nylon leisure suits, tiny swimming trunks, and even a candy-apple red bondage suit by Vivienne Westwood. But many modern men, as stubborn as they are, just prefer khakis.
Most impressive are acquisitions as recent as the fall 2010 collections from the Paris runway shows, including a pale wool slim-cut suit with skinny trousers and elastic ankle zippers by French designer Romain Kremer. I'm not sure where a guy would wear it, but it's nice to look at.
"The common misconception is that men's clothes have been so boring and dull in comparison to women's fashions," Haugland said. "That is certainly not true."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.
The Peacock Male
Through June at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. 215-763-8100, www.philamuseum.org