Image courtesy of Michael Blanchard.

'gender bending fashion' celebrates designers who challenge the binary

See looks from the new exhibit in Boston, which features designs by trailblazers like Rick Owens, Rei Kawakubo, and Yves Saint-Laurent.

by Brittany Natale
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May 8 2019, 6:09pm

Image courtesy of Michael Blanchard.

Throughout history, fashion and culture have been deeply intertwined, making clothing much more than just garments worn out of necessity. What we wear can represent personal expression, distinct cultural markers, and even our political beliefs. Clothing can also be used as a way to challenge traditional expectations imposed by society, such as that of gender roles. A new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) explores how gender fluid clothing has done this, and more.

Gender Bending Fashion, which is on view through August 25, navigates the vibrant history of fashion and the role it has played in blurring traditional gender lines. The exhibit, curated by Michelle Finamore, includes designs from over 50 trailblazers, including Rick Owens, Rei Kawakubo, Yves Saint-Laurent, Rad Hourani, and more, and is organized into three sections: Disrupt, Blur, and Transcend.

Beyond garments, the show also provides a commentary on the societal shifts that have occurred within the last 100 years – including those pertaining to racial equality, LGBTQIA+ rights, the impact of social media, and more. “I think one of the issues that I kept confronting [while putting together this show] was what are the stories that are not covered in traditional art and fashion histories?” says Finamore. “Where are the narratives that slip through the cracks and how do you represent that in a museum exhibition?”

From pieces worn by musical legends and androgynous runway collections inspired by pop culture icons, to designs that were reactions to the political landscape of the time, here are just a few of the must-see pieces in Gender Bending Fashion:

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Alessandro Trincone, "Annodami" collection, Spring/Summer 2017

"Annodami” Collection by Alessandro Trincone
Young Thug famously wore Alessandro Trincone’s Japanese-inspired design from the designer’s Annodami collection in 2016 on the cover of his album Jeffrey. The Annodami collection was specifically created to show the femininity that exists within the male form and to also reimagine the traditional image of masculinity. Fluid in nature, Trincone’s creations radiate the designer’s belief that anyone should be allowed to wear whatever they please, regardless of who or what they are.

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Tuxedo worn by Marlene Dietrich in the film 'Morocco', 1930

Tuxedo worn by Marlene Dietrich in the film Morocco
Marlene Dietrich, one of the most well-known actresses from the Golden Age of Film, had a wardrobe that was revolutionary for the 30s. Often wearing men’s trousers and slacks decades before it was socially acceptable, Dietrich utilized clothing to continuously push the boundaries of gender and sexuality. In the 1930 film Morocco, she famously wore a tuxedo made specifically for her by longtime collaborator and Hollywood costume designer, Travis Banton.

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One Woman Show – Look 32, Autumn/Winter 2003-4, Viktor and Rolf


One Woman Show — Look 32 by Viktor&Rolf
Dutch design duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren have continuously challenged traditional ideas of gendered fashion by creating boundary-pushing, avant-garde pieces. For instance, their fall/winter 2003 runway show, titled “One Woman Show,” directly drew inspiration from the androgynous Tilda Swinton and the many identities that she embodies both on and off the screen. Audio of Swinton’s original poem about individuality recited at the runway presentation is included in the exhibition as well.

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Tailcoat jacket and wrap skirt, Spring/Summer 1994–95, Rei Kawakubo

Tailcoat jacket and wrap skirt by Rei Kawakubo
Rei Kawakubo, Japanese designer and founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, consistently goes against the grain when it comes to fashion by uprooting clothing’s traditional gendered roles. This is especially apparent in her spring/summer 1994 collection, which features a tailcoat jacket paired with a wrap skirt. The juxtaposition of the tailored jacket and long skirt also calls to mind a surprising discovery Finamore came across during the show’s preparation.

“Even though I have always known this notion of gendered fashion [and how it] is so deeply entrenched in Western culture, I didn’t realize some of the legal history that related to gendered fashion,” says Finamore. “We still have laws on the books in certain states going back to the 1800s [about] how men and women [are to not wear] each other’s attire. Some of these laws are just now being overturned because [there has been] more of a focus on what is going on in the current climate relating to gender expression and gender identity.”

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David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World album cover, 1970

Dandie Fashions suit worn by Jimi Hendrix
Featured in the exhibition is also a 1967 Dandie Fashions suit worn by Jimi Hendrix, a style that was a key part of the Peacock Revolution of the 60s and 70s. The Peacock Revolution was a pivotal moment in fashion that changed menswear. With this shift, people began to see more frilled hems, beading, vibrant patterns, velvet, and vivid colors integrated into men’s fashion, which before this time was traditionally conservative. These over-the-top styles were famously worn by iconic musicians such as Hendrix, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger.

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Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man—I'd Join the Navy, about 1917–18, Howard Chandler Christy


Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man—I'd Join the Navy
Historically, people’s wardrobes have been influenced greatly by the political landscape surrounding them. This was especially noticeable in America during World War II. “What I found fascinating is when you really look back there are moments, such as the World War II era, where women are very proactive about working for the war efforts,” says Finamore. “They are working in factories and they have these roles that push against traditional gendered roles in that era. Yet when the war is over and the men come back everything in the 50s becomes highly gendered and there is a return to traditional gender roles.”

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Adidas ensemble, 2018, Jeremy Scott


Adidas ensemble by Jeremy Scott
This ensemble, which is inspired by Jeremy Scott’s collaboration with Adidas “JS Adidas Wings 2.0” fuses together two contrasting styles: intricate detailing and relaxed athletic wear. Scott’s designs, considered rebellious in nature, often toy between the ideas of feminine and masculine.