MFA’s ‘Gender Bending Fashion’ Rejects the Gender Binary

Billy Porter’s look at the 2019 Oscars was far from ordinary. Every year, most of the men attending the ceremony wear suits or tuxedos, some with an unconventional twist, like a velvet jacket or an article of clothing in any color other than black. Only Porter, however, has disrupted that norm to such an exceptional extent, enlisting fashion designer Christian Siriano to transform the traditional tuxedo into a floor-length ball gown.

Inspired by radically nonbinary fashion decisions, like Porter’s, on March 21, the Museum of Fine Arts opened a new exhibit, Gender Bending Fashion, which will be on display until Aug. 25. The museum has organized a number of events in conjunction with the exhibit, including lectures about nonbinary gendering and the progression of sexuality as well as screenings of films presenting unconventional gender roles and costume designs.

The exhibit begins actively addressing the tension that surrounds gender bending fashion, with the phrase beside a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.”

Beyond that, a timeline from 1851 to 2019 introduces a concise modern history of gender inequality through legislation enforcing oppressive gendering and movements that broke through the gender binary. Even before visitors enter the exhibition room, key moments that define the progression of gender equality and the evolution toward neutralized sexuality—like the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the formal defining of “unisex” in 1966—expose them to the depth of controversy around nonbinary fashion.

Prefaced with the differentiation of “gender” and “sex,” explanations of various gender identities, and the definition of “gender bending,” Gender Bending Fashion ensures visitors leave the exhibit having absorbed more than an appreciation for the artistry of fashion. It emphasizes the importance of fashion as a form of expression and objects the restriction of identity through gendered norms.

A representation of the past, present, and future of fashion politics—as well as the evolution of fashion standards in American pop culture—the exhibit is divided into three sections: Disrupt, Blur, and Transcend.

Suffragette Amelia Bloomer disrupted the standard of gendered fashion. The slow progression of gender-bending fashion began in the mid-19th century with the first pair of women’s pants, made by Bloomer. Challenging the gendered suit/skirt norm that restricted expression and enforced patriarchal inequality, the next few decades saw pants and suits designed for women becoming regularized in pop culture.

More than other exhibits in the museum, Gender Bending Fashion relies on the every detail of the space to visually deliver its message. Paralleling the reversal of gendered fashion, white words on black walls invert the conventional black-on-white background. metallic accents, neon lights, and background tracks like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” shine a light on the unabashed eccentricity of gender-bending fashion. Sharp angles and asymmetric alcoves house the displays in an ultramodern setting that opposes regularity.

Further developments in fashion trends blurred the distinction between men’s and women’s clothing. Mannequins dressed in the clothing of binary-challenging fashion icons David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix faced others dressed by well-known designers like Yves Saint-Laurent and Gucci. Mini-shrines to the simplicity of Japanese fashion and the designers’ tendencies toward gender neutrality, in addition to designers Rick Owens and Rudi Gernreich, were surrounded by figures in gender-neutralized trends from denim to athleisure.

Gender Bending Fashion encourages the continuation of neutralizing fashion practices. Looking to continue transcending the gender binary, the final display presents mannequins elevated on platforms as a view of what gender bending fashion is.

As visitors leave the exhibit, they are encouraged to think about their own fashion: “Why do you wear what you wear? How does gender influence your choices?”

Featured Images by Mary Wilkie / Heights Editor

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Mary Wilkie is the opinions editor for The Heights. She's not necessarily opinionated, but thinks Jack Goldman's opinions are always wrong, so she's opinionated about that, apparently.