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the Gender Bending Fashion exhibit!

Last week I went with the Apparel Designers Network to see this impressive exhibit at Boston's MFA. The museum has gathered an extensive collection of wonderful pieces to admire and examine from the perspective of gender - one of the most contentious issues of our day.

Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum

Out of all the events we have had for the Apparel Designers Network, this particular one has gained the most traction on social media, and not by only a little. In fact, just the event posted on the ADN Facebook page reached over100K people and garnered 6.5K responses! Although the ADN's social media reach has been steady increasing, I can only attribute this exponential success to the subject matter of this exhibit. It's no secret that more genderless dressing is on the rise and that gender is a hot topic these days.

One of the many important roles that art museums fill is to hold a mirror up to contemporary society and change our perspective on how we view things. This exhibit offers the viewer many ways to look at the topic of gender and how fashion can be a tool to challenge gender norms. Below are some of the standout pieces in this impactful exhibit.

the Gender Bending Fashion exhibit at Boston's MFA 2019

long view of the main gallery for the Gender Bending Fashion exhibit at Boston's MFA

The main gallery is full of garments that not only push boundaries of what has been acceptable for women, but also what has been acceptable for men to wear. There are displays of garments grouped by the standard they may be challenging or by the historical period they are the quintessential examples of.


Viktor & Rolf is well represented in the show

Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren have spent decades pushing boundaries with their avant garde designs; one of those boundaries is gender and their "One Woman" show for A/W 2003-04 featured actress Tilda Swindon and an army of facsimiles to highlight her androgynous aesthetic. In fact, the exhibit features several examples of entertainers such as Tilda Swindon, Marlene Dietrich, and blues singer Gladys Bentley who challenged commonly held gender norms with their personal style and created a platform for these radical ideas with their celebrity. Their adherence to their own style goes far beyond a woman simply wearing pants and questions the roles that women play in society and the restrictions that have been imposed on them by (largely) male-dominated institutions.

Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo peices show their interpretations of the menswear jacket for womenswear

A significant part of the exhibit examines the motivations and outcomes of women wearing pants and other garments considered to be masculine. Some of the displays point to the simple practicality of it, while others point to the subversive nature of it. Nearly all indicate that the wearers of these pieces defiantly chose to wear what felt comfortable for them personally. There is a wonderful series of photos by Prisca Monnier called "Dandy Women" showcasing women dressed in mannish suits and entirely in command of their female power. An example of Saint Laurent's famous "Le Smoking" is on display, as are photos and examples of designers' early attempts at introducing pants into women's wardrobes.

Alessandro Trincone's piece on display at the Gender Bending fashion exhibit

one of the star pieces of the show is this ensemble by designer Alessadro Trincone

The exhibit also showcases some spectacular examples of how the rules imposed on males have been questioned by designers and the pioneers who chose to wear their creations. In many ways restrictions on males have been far more stringent and more difficult to put behind us as a society. While it is acceptable in most cultures for women to wear pants, suits, and even patterns and colors that are considered "masculine", it is still eyebrow-raising for men to appear in American and European society in skirts or dresses - with some very specific exceptions, such as kilts and (interestingly) ensembles for religious orders. Even now, some colors and patterns are still considered too feminine for men to wear.

Here again, entertainers and musicians have been at the forefront in challenging these widely held taboos. One cannot think of Prince without recalling his flamboyant, androgynous style, or of David Bowie, Elton John, and a host of other male performers that made what was verboten part of their signature appeal.

You have to wonder why it is considered beneath a man's dignity to wear a dress, but it is suitable for a woman. In the exhibit, there is a marvelous quote by Yohji Yamamoto: "I always wondered who decided there should be a difference in the clothes between men and women. Perhaps men decided this." The men who challenge these assumptions have put themselves out there to be themselves and to make society reexamine these taboos.

This has got to be my favorite Iggy quote of all time!


A large part of the exhibit displays an impressive collection of historic garments and ensembles alongside contemporary pieces to show how far things have come. One of the examples that made several in our group laugh was a corset that was designed specifically for bicycling, which underscores how most societal change happens incrementally. It would be inconceivable to bike or exert oneself in anything as restrictive as corset today; in fact, the continued popularity of athleisure only proves that once a more comfortable alternative is offered, it is highly unlikely consumers will be willing to revert back to old styles. At one time, however, a woman leaving the house without a corset was considered inconceivable and a corset for bicycling was probably as much of a compromise as one could expect.

an extensive display of historical pieces juxtaposed with more contemporary ones.

Yet another part of the exhibit has us looking forward. There is a video display of Boston residents who are marching to the beat of their own drum and pushing boundaries as they exist here and now. Their stories and style are compelling and beg the question why some still find it so threatening for individuals to simply express themselves as they are most comfortable doing. The last room ends the exhibit with a fresh crop of designers who are pushing gender norms forward and their designs are displayed elevated on platforms in a room with ambient music that sets a peaceful tone. It provokes you to imagine a future where people are free of some of the restrictions and biases we still uphold as a society - and the serenity that such a future might bring.

some pieces from the new guard

This exhibit definitely spurred some great discussion among the designers in the group! You still have time to see "Gender Bending Fashion" as it will be on display through August 25th. Don't miss your chance to see the show that Vogue has credited as being a "rare fashion exhibition that addresses a vital, of-the-moment cultural discussion while at the same time placing it within a historical framework".

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Sources: Polychrome | Museum of Fine Arts Boston

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