A couple months ago I found myself in Phillie for a family event and I was delighted, not only to spend time with my awesome extended family, but to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Always a favorite of mine (I think they’ve corned the Duchamp market), they also happened to have multiple fashion exhibits up. I’ll skip over the Capucci: Art into Fashion, which was spectacular but has received much praise elsewhere, and focus on a much more modest exhibition, tucked away in an adjacent building: “Tailoring Philadelphia: Tradition and Innovation in Menswear.”
This was a collection of Francis Toscani designs (a man I’d never heard of), and though the dull title might lead you to believe you would be presented with a straightforward timeline of men’s styles, this Toscani chap was truly something special. Toscani (1915–1973) really experimented with traditional tailoring techniques to create inventive suits and jackets, even while following general menswear trends.
The above piece is deceptively simple, I think, though it does have an interesting safari-come-dinner jacket look about it, with the practical cargo pockets and impractical creme color (I imagine myself staining this upon a first wearing). But the truly innovative aspect of this piece is… voila:
It actually is meant to be a convertible jacket, from the cargo lounge version to the just-short-of-tails dinner jacket incarnation! To me, this points to the duality of men’s expected roles: a hyper masculine one who hunts lions by day, but who converts into the perfect gentleman at a civilized dinner party at night.
But this is the piece I truly gasped at with awe and delight:
No, this is not a fashion teaching aid of two hacked suits, though it certainly could be used as one. Toscani created this “Half and Half” suit where one half (our right) was executed in the 1950s style, and the brown half reflected the current ’60s suit trends. After the elaborately embroidered, brightly colored, flamboyantly slashed, and sometimes even girdled men’s fashions of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, it’s sometimes hard to notice the more subtle changes in menswear after the three-piece suits came into play. Toscani’s split personality suit really highlights the changes even within one decade: the ’50s half is 3-buttoned and about 6 inches longer; the leg is much fuller with the assistance of a hidden wait pleat; the shoulder slopes more and follows a longer, broader line; the lapel too is much fuller to emphasize a man’s chest breadth. The brown ’60s side is slimmer everywhere: leg, shoulder, lapel, arm; it is only 2-buttoned, further streamlining the look; I was interested to notice the waist is nipped much higher than the ’50s counterpart, favoring a leggier look over a torso-centric one.
This suit (which I intend to make for myself someday by upcycling and uniting two separate suits) does what fashion historians and curators must do for themselves — find visual comparisons to highlight trends stand out; this is not as easy as it sounds, especially when dealing with contemporary fashion, as Toscani was (he made this in the early ’60s). Magazines and blogs attempt to track trends and drive sales, but it’s difficult to separate a seasonal micro-trend from a sustained, decade-long one without some time passage.
Several decades had passed between the height of the zoot suit trend of the ’30s ad ’40s and when Toscani created his own in the early ’60s:
Originally worn by young men (often black or Latino) as a form of rebellious expression, zoot suits had baggy pants and extra-broad chests that belied the fabric shortages imposed by WWII, and the slimmer silhouettes of men’s and women’s mainstream fashion. The son of an Italian immigrant, Toscani may have been reviving the conversation about race and fashion: black and Latino men were known to be taunted, chased, or even beaten when flaunting zoot suits in the ’40s, and Toscani made this as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. Whether by a jacket that looks like one but can convert into two, or with a suit that looks like two but is one, or by reviving a several decades dead trend, Toscani experimented with time passage, functionality, and duality of purpose, masculine and racial roles. A man after my own heart.