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blur then transcend: gender bending fashion at the mfa

by Stella Ho '22

It starts with a dress. At least, that would be the immediate assumption about the Alessandro Trincone ensemble that opens “Gender Bending Fashion,” a new exhibit at the MFA

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A suit with collars that evoke a peacock’s fan, worn in Viktor&Rolf’s 2003 “One Woman Show” collection, which actress Tilda Swinton wrote and narrated a poem for.


The ruffled outfit on a gray mannequin in a neon orange prism displays the traditional trademarks of a dress; an image next to it shows the rapper Young Thug wearing it on the cover of his album Jeffery.


From the start, “Gender Bending Fashion” plays with our gendered notions of fashion. We may assume that a dress is made for a woman because, “Although clothing is usually constructed with a particular gender in mind, it is the social discourse around fashion that actually imbues it with gendered meaning,” curator Michelle Tolini Finamore writes. In other words, the clothes on the gender-neutral gray mannequins--made specifically for this exhibit--do not say anything about the wearer’s gender. Our assumptions make them speak. Clothes, photographs, and music in the exhibition space tell the stories of individuals who have used fashion to transcend gender over the last 100 years. 


Stepping beyond the Alessandro Trincone ensemble, you are faced with colorfully-dressed mannequins resembling clubgoers posed in a maze of neon lights. Some are familiar, recent pieces that speak to the growing trends of blending “masculine” and “feminine” elements in clothing and presenting mens’ and womens’ collections on the same runway show: Janelle Monáe’s red Christian Siriano hybrid evening suit with a gown-like train worn to the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party, an embellished Alessandro Michele for Gucci suit. The exhibit is in step with the current zeitgeist, where gender identities are increasingly viewed along a spectrum instead of just the dualistic male and female.


The show’s organization reflects the narrative of gender relations, its sections moving from “Women in Suits” and “Men in Skirts” to “Blur” and “Transcend.” The first two sections show clothes made for one gender, but with elements from the other, while the latter two include clothes or design elements that are made without a gender in mind.


“Women in Suits” and “Men in Skirts” are especially indicative of the exhibit introduction’s claim that “Fashion history is social history.” When women wore suits for the first time, they co-opted a traditional symbol of patriarchal power. One of the first women to do so in public was bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich, who wore a top hat and tails (and kissed a woman) in a then-controversial scene in the 1930 film Morocco. The most striking thing about her tuxedo, displayed next to a 1996 reinterpretation of a 1966 Le Smoking suit by Yves Saint Laurent, is how normal it looks to modern eyes. It would probably be declared elegant and chic if worn at, say, the Met Gala this year, but hardly revolutionary.

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An ensemble from Alessandro Trincone’s “Annodami” collection that, in his words, presents “a new meaning of masculinity” opens “Gender Bending Fashion" (left). Contemporary suits for women include (from left to right) an ensemble by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, a Christian Siriano evening suit worn by Janelle Monáe, and a suit by Bindle & Keep, a queer-positive company (right).


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More controversy would probably be caused if an actor showed up wearing a colorful Palomo Spain dress--for evidence, look no further than the gasps and praise that surrounded Billy Porter’s tuxedo gown at the 2019 Academy Awards. (A picture of him on the red carpet is the last image in a timeline outside the entrance to the exhibit.) Why? Probably because women borrowing elements of a man’s suit reinforced the perception of men as those in power, as women needed to emulate men to signal authority. On the other hand, a man wearing the traditionally feminine skirt can be seen as emasculated in the public eye. “Society,” the exhibition text reads, “has typically been more understanding of those who borrow the dress from socially or politically powerful groups.” The rise in popularity of women’s power suits, especially those by Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, and Giorgio Armani, coincided with a growing number of women in the workforce in the second half of the 20th century, and so may have seemed to reflect shifting views of gender roles. In a way, though, they also maintained the status quo of how gender was defined.


“Blur” and “Transcend” provide some answers as to how fashion can morph past strict definitions of gender. A wall of outfits ubiquitous to western fashion comprises the “Blur” section, showing how the acceptance of some activities as gender-neutral resulted in their outfits being adapted for both men and women. Examples include: denim, military wear, and sports clothes. “Transcend” points towards the future, where an evolution of the understanding of gender “thanks to the pioneering efforts of feminists, queer, intersex, and trans activists” have led designers to create clothes for anybody to wear. The outfits in this section, mostly strong-shouldered, blocky ensembles made in this decade, stand on pedestals in front of pixelated screens, acting like a fashion show of the future.


Some elements of the show are still constrained by the past, though. Gender-bending and gender-neutral trends are often, as Tollini Finamore says, “forged by queer and nonbinary individuals, many of them individuals of color,” groups of people whose artifacts are not traditionally included in museum collections. The MFA did not own a zoot suit worn by a Pachuca (zoot-suit wearing Mexican-American women in the 1940s) and so had to use patterns to modify a suit to look like one. Also, despite a smattering of minority designers (Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons from Japan, London tailor Ozwald Boateng, among others,) the majority of styles on display are Eurocentric, leading one to wonder what stories of style might have been omitted. The exhibit speaks of style changing perceptions of identity, yet its own scope of what constitutes museum-worthy fashion is fairly narrow.

More “feminine” suits worn by men through history, the center two (left to right) worn by David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix.


All the same, the presence of this exhibit at a major museum speaks to the increasing acceptance of disruptions to gender binaries. A 19th-century oil painting hangs inside the exhibit to suggest that acceptance of gender equilibrium is not impossible; the two children in the painting both wear dresses and their genders are indistinguishable. At the time of painting, both boys and girls wore dresses until the former was put in pants at the age of nine. The dress did not have a gendered meaning until society placed one on it. The exhibit seems to ask that “Gender Bending Fashion” one day become just fashion, where style will say more about personal expression than gender tropes. Something starting with a dress will mean much less than what the details that are on the dress reveal.

The Gender Bending Fashion exhibition showed at the MFA in Boston from March 21 to August 25, 2019.

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