Fashion and gender are inextricably linked. What we wear informs our notions of gender, and historically, gender has also controlled what we can and cannot wear. “Gender Bending Fashion,” a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, surveys the past century of Western haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion that has challenged and blurred the binary prescription of dress, featuring contemporary designers and sartorial icons in the context of the historical trends (and restrictions) that informed them. As the first major museum to address the intersection of fashion and gender, the exhibit has been lauded by Vogue, the Boston Globe, and the Art Newspaper as a showcase of “Western pop culture’s great moments of binary disruption.”
As someone who studies feminism and fashion, I desperately wanted to love this exhibit, too. There were parts of it that I did. The fact that it even exists is an achievement, and it features several deserving moments in fashion on visually striking holographic displays: One centerpiece, for example, was Christian Siriano’s acclaimed silk red evening suit for Janelle Monáe in 2018. The exhibit also ended in some of the up and coming designers that are working towards creating clothing that “will be designed for, and worn by, anybody."
But what the exhibit ultimately magnifies is the pervading whiteness and straightness of the fashion industry. The “gender bending” garments featured have predominantly been fashioned for white, cisgender, often heterosexual bodies who already have the privilege to explore the creative potential of “crossdressing” on the runway, rather than for bodies whose identities don’t fit within the prescribed gender binary that has been further perpetuated by fashion. That’s not to say that the former has been done in bad faith or does not deserve to be recognized, especially because these fashions were rightly seen as radical as their time. But we must acknowledge the white privilege that allows Tilda Swinton to be heralded an “androgynous icon,” especially when Viktor & Rolf’s 2003 “One Woman Show” inspired by and featuring her did not include a single person of color. If “gender bending” fashion and exhibits thereof stop at straight men wearing skirts and women wearing tuxedos — all the while capitalizing on BGLTQ symbols by making everything rainbow-themed and playing anthems like “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga and “PYNK” by Janelle Monáe — they run the risk of overlooking actual gender benders. The exhibit’s definitions of terms related to gender and sexuality — including the differenciation between the two —are a definite step in the right direction, but they inevitably feel misplaced when not followed with fashion that actually embodies these ideas.
Perhaps this shortcoming is more a reflection of the fashion industry than the exhibit itself — after all, some might argue that BGLTQ communities have only recently started to gain visibility in the public eye. The exhibit seems to be somewhat self-aware about its lacking representation: Halfway through, a small description notes that “The MFA began collecting clothing as early as 1899, but many art museums did not do so until mid-20th century… Marginalized groups — including queer and trans communities and communities of color — were rarely represented in mainstream institutions. As a result, fashion trends that originated in these communities have been obscured or erased, the garments themselves lost to history.” Still, the result is that garments like the single zoot suit featured — a baggy suit popularized among African American and Latino youth as a potent, political symbol in the ‘30s and ‘40s — and Jimi Hendrix’s floral jacket appear like tokens of diversity rather than integral players in challenging the norms of the fashion industry. Where is the representation of drag, for example, of which there exists plentiful and racially diverse gender bending fashion? Why was Rudi Gernreich, a gay rights activist who revolutionized unisex clothing in the 1960s, relegated once again to a mere two-garment feature, rather than made a focus?
“Gender Bending Fashion” appears to have magnified, rather than mitigated, the fault lines of the fashion industry. The exhibit’s existence is a hopeful start — but definitely not the end of fashion that challenges gendered conceptions of dress.
— Staff writer Kaylee S. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kayleeskim.