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Opinion: codpiece politics

Citing civil rights, freedom and love, Versace's political voice shouts over camp bravado

Expression versus oppression. It’s something that gets talked about a lot around the menswear shows in London, where thought-provoking collections challenge our views of what constitutes the male wardrobe and the Daily Mail often rears its conformist, bigoted head, mocking all the designers who didn’t think to stay inside the boundaries of a conventional, fixed masculinity.

Arriving in Milan, the conversation tends to shift. Here we have a group of designers who also push far beyond the normative ideas of menswear, but because they tend to join the discussion armed with beefcake models in loud looks and a generous sprinkling of bling, they somehow get lost in the serious menswear conversation. Instead, they get labelled flashy, flamboyant or camp, not least because they’re seen in comparison to Milan’s extensive list of designers who live for classic cashmere tailoring. I’m guilty of slapping on the camp stamp as well.

But at the hanky code-referencing Versace show on Saturday evening, Donatella Versace underscored the fact that while her house does champion a gloriously OTT and unashamedly campy, sexy glamour for men, there’s a lot more to it than hot guys in red leather chaps and gold-studded codpieces – if you can imagine anything more ‘more’ than that. Backstage, I asked Donatella if the show was a celebration of gay culture, and she said that while she definitely quoted gay codes, overall the message was about liberating men and “an expression of freedom. I think it’s really important today with what’s going on in the world with civil rights and love.” The collection was a big, joyous middle finger to Russia and reminded us that subversive political statements can come in the most seemingly frivolous of (big) packages. 

A lot of Milan’s express yourself-attitude this season is tied to a great sense of theatricality. The city loves a themed show and a bit of macho Italian cosplay, and looking at Dolce & Gabbana's medieval extravaganza, chances are they might have been watching season three of The Borgias over summer. The bejewelled crowns and gloves, the hyper-ornamented chainmail and velvet sweatshirts embroidered with Gothic church prints were a sumptuous nod to a time when male peacocking was the norm rather than something for people like the Daily Fail to snigger about.

Theatricality was also a major theme at Prada, where Miuccia's introvert yet cocksure boys had an air of poor townie kids dressing up their late seventies-early eighties workwear and tracksuits with borrowed fur coats and ties. Placed on that vast stage, against Weimar-style music and thundering Rammstein, the collection was an intelligent commentary on performative male dressing and peacocking, in that twisted and slightly 'off' way that only Prada masters.

Just last week at LC:M, the appearance of heels and skirts led tired conversations of gender and androgyny, with J.W. Anderson branding androgyny “boring” himself. This weekend Milan almost slipped into the clasp of alternative male stereotypes itself, but thanks to the performance, bravado and unabashed loud statements of Donatella et al., the bigger message was finally given a chance to shine through.