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.

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.

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 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.


The new exhibit honors early tastemakers who challenged the fashion status quo like Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Young Thug.


A visitor attends the exhibit preview at the Museum of Fine Arts.


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