Gender-bending fashion rewrites the rules of who wears what

Boundary breaking exhibit celebrates the ways couture blurs the line between men's and women's clothing.Monday, April 8, 2019

By Cathy Newman
Photographs By Dina Litovsky

The message is telegraphed from birth. Infant girls are swaddled in pink. Boys in blue. Girls wear skirts. Boys pants. The clichés fall easily from our lips. “Clothes make the man,” we say; “who wears the pants,” signals dominance. “A basic purpose of costume is to distinguish men from women,” Alison Lurie writes in “The Language of Clothes.” Dress, traditionally, is the membership card of gender.

In an era of gender fluidity, all bets are off. As the binary of male/female falls by the wayside, fashion follows suit—and has done so periodically since 1507-1458 BCE, when the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt as pharaoh wearing male regalia and a false beard. More recently, the Italian designer Alessandro Trincone created an elegant ruffled dress that so captivated rapper Young Thug, he wore it on the cover of his 2016 album: No, My Name is Jeffery. The subject of gender and fashion takes on particular immediacy in the current setting of LGBTQIA+ rights and the impact of social media in community building and self-identification.

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In “Gender Bending Fashion,” which runs from March 21 through August 25, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston explores the relationship between fashion and gender—the first time a major museum has addressed the subject (the Trincone dress is one of the costumes on display). Cathy Newman spoke with the show’s curator, Michelle Finamore, of the Museum’s Department of Textiles and Fashion Arts. (Read: A photographer explores the link between color and gender.)

The scribed line separating gendered clothing has blurred. Target, the Wall Street Journal reports, has removed gender labels from in-store signage. Boyfriends and girlfriends raid each other’s closets. Let’s talk about the social zeitgeist that led to the exhibition.

Originally I was looking at what was going on in contemporary menswear, but then I realized something revolutionary was happening; there was a bigger picture. Designers are responsive to the moment. They respond to the street, to the Millennials and Generation Z ...so they are responding to the new energy of rethinking gender expression through clothing and the idea of not wanting to be boxed into a particular gender. You see this melding and blurring often in moments of youthful rebellion, like in the 20s, 60s, 70s and now.

Let’s start with the proverbial question: “Who wears the pants?”

There have been blips in history when women have tried to wear pants and failed or were unable to shift the paradigm. In 1851, women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer [who promoted pants for women inspired by Turkish attire, hence “bloomers.”] tries to offer a more rationale dress for women and failed. As women took up bicycling, tennis and golf, clothing for those sports affected the acceptability of pants. Civil War surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wore pants despite eight arrests for “inappropriate attire.” In 1993, Carol Moseley-Braun [also Barbara Mikulski] wore pants on the Senate floor. “Until I walked in the door I had no idea there was this unwritten rule,” Moseley-Braun said. Now we have Hillary Clinton’s white pantsuit as a political symbol.

That unwritten rule persisted. In 1968, New York socialite Nan Kempner famously turned up at Le Cirque in pants. When refused entry, she shed the pants and wore her long jacket as a mini-dress. In the early 1980s, when I started at National Geographic, skirt and stockings were de rigueur.

A woman came up to me recently and said: “I worked on Wall Street in the 1990s and it was dresses and skirts only.” There are still judges who do not permit female attorneys to wear pants in the courtroom. (Discover the world's oldest dress.)

The show focuses on contemporary 20th and 21st century fashion—designers like Rei Kawakubo, Ikiré Jones and Freddie Burretti, who dressed David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era—but includes historical context. For example, you display the top hat and tails Marlene Dietrich wore in the 1930 film Morocco.

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The director Josef von Sternberg had to fight the studio for Dietrich to wear that. The studio thought it too radical. She wasn’t the first to do that on film. There are many silent film stars wearing the same thing in the teens and twenties, when the standard female body takes on a more boyish silhouette and bobbed hair. It was driven by a younger generation challenging convention, and women moving into the workplace achieving the right to vote. It’s related to social and cultural change.

There’s an erotic charge to the Dietrich outfit. Didn’t Calvin Klein say: “There’s something incredibly sexy about a woman wearing her boyfriend’s t-shirt and underwear?”

It’s slightly transgressive—suiting yourself as a man. But it follows her curves and she still has the hair and make up. It mixed it up in a way that was uniquely sexy.

Spectators get an early look at the exhibition, which honors designers and influencers who challenged the status quo.

Men wore heels in the 18th century. Not so much now. Elizabeth Semmelhack, a shoe historian, suggests that one might ask because of the implications of dominance, why men don’t wear heels more often?

It’s true. But then designer Rad Hourani makes the same high-heeled boot for men and women. Many years ago I saw comedian Eddie Izzard perform. He comes to the stage in jeans, make-up and heels. One of my favorite quotes is from him. An interviewer asked: Eddie why are you wearing a woman’s dress? “It’s not a woman’s dress,” he replied. “It’s my dress.” I think at the opening you’ll see a lot of men in heels.

Joan of Arc appears in the show’s timeline. Her male attire was contentious and factored in her conviction for heresy and execution in 1431.

“In women’s clothing many transgressions were done to me,” she said at her trial. When I saw that, it put her clothes in a different perspective. Of course men’s clothes would be more protective for her.

Actor Billy Porter attended the 2019 Academy Awards in a Christian Siriano dress. “My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up,” he wrote in Vogue.

Fast forward to February 2019 and Billy Porter in his tuxedo-gown on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. “His torso looked like it was smoking a cigar with a brandy...the skirt, ready for a gothic Victoria-era coronation,” the New Yorker reported.

That’s designed by Christian Siriano, who did the Janelle Monáe outfit we feature in the show. Porter is an actor who’s been pushing the envelope through dress. “My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up,” he wrote in Vogue. “To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean.” It’s fascinating to me that it’s considered so newsworthy. You’d think we would be beyond that...yet we aren’t because there is something so deeply entrenched about a man in a skirt. There’s a longer history of women in pants than men in skirts. It will be interesting to see where we’ll be in ten years.

What gender-bending clothes hang in your closet?

I have plenty of tailored suits. We will have a pop-up shop in the museum with Phluid Project, one of the first brick and mortar stores marketing clothes as gender neutral. When I went to talk to them in New York I bought a t-shirt that says gender bender and a long sequined unisex skirt. I’m trying to get my husband to wear a skirt to the opening.

Adam Tessier, the MFA’s head of interpretation, says that most shows represent the end of a conversation. He suggests this will be the start of one. Are there indications that will happen?

I have a colleague who brought in a young member of the LBGTQ community for a sneak peak in the exhibit’s early stages. “You know,” they said. “I feel like I’ve finally been seen.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Former National Geographic Editor-at-Large Cathy Newman is the author of Fashion (National Geographic, 2001) . She last wrote about “ The Immortal Corpse” in the January 2019 issue of the magazine. Follow her on twitter @wordcat12.