MFA Boston Organizes Exhibition Exploring Relationship Between Fashion and Gender

Gender Bending Fashion Traces a Century of Style That Dares to Break the Rules

BOSTON (March 11, 2019)—This spring, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), opens the first major museum exhibition to examine the long-intertwined relationship between fashion and gender. Gender Bending Fashion (on view March 21–August 25, 2019) features more than 60 boundary-pushing contemporary designs alongside dozens of 20th-century garments and photographs, illustrating a rich history of individuals disrupting, blurring and seeking to transcend a traditional division between men’s and women’s clothing over the last 100 years. Among the approximately 50 designers featured in the exhibition are Jean Paul Gaultier, Rudi Gernreich, Rad Hourani, Rei Kawakubo (for Comme des Garçons), Yves Saint Laurent, Alessandro Michele (for Gucci), Rick Owens, Walé Oyéjidé (for Ikiré Jones), Christian Siriano, Alejandro Gómez Palomo and Alessandro Trincone. More than simply documenting styles and trends, Gender Bending Fashion also explores how the garments on view can speak broadly to societal shifts across the past century, including changing gender roles; ongoing efforts toward LGBTQIA+ rights and racial equality; and the rise of social media as a powerful tool for self-expression. Throughout the galleries, individual stories of designers and wearers—many of them celebrities, performers and fashion influencers—emerge, touching on issues of gender identity and expression, sexuality, race, class, pop culture, activism, social justice and more. These topics are further explored through the perspectives of local Bostonians, primarily sourced through Instagram, whose experiences are documented in a digital album within the exhibition. MFA Late Nites, an after-hours celebration programmed in collaboration with local organizations, artists and performers, offers a special sneak peek of Gender Bending Fashion on March 15, followed by Member Preview from March 16–20. “Gender Bending Fashion” is generously supported by the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, the Fashion Council, and The Coby Foundation. Additional support provided by the Museum Council Special Exhibition Fund. Media sponsor is Boston magazine. Hotel Partner is Mandarin Oriental, Boston. Motion graphics projections provided by Black Math. 

“Looking back to the past can illuminate hopes for the future. Gender Bending Fashion is a project that reflects the current moment, celebrating designers and wearers who are challenging cultural norms through their work and personal sartorial choices. These trends, however, are not new,” said Michelle Finamore, Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts. “This exhibition presents boundary-pushing contemporary designs alongside selections from the MFA’s rich collection of garments from the 20th century—illustrating that the conversation about fashion and gender has historic precedent and yet continues to evolve.”

Developed collaboratively by Finamore, Adam Tessier (Head of Interpretation) and Chelsea Garunay (Senior Designer), Gender Bending Fashion is organized thematically into three sections, placing historical and contemporary garments into dialogue throughout the exhibition. The first section, Disrupt, highlights moments over the past century when designers and wearers have upended the paradigm of suited men and skirted women that has traditionally been in place in Western culture. The second section, Blur, explores certain moments and contexts in which the division between menswear and womenswear has been blurred—including children’s clothing, military-inspired garb, sporting attire and 1960s unisex fashion. The final section, Transcend, features the work of contemporary designers that provide a glimpse of a new vanguard—one that is seeking to reframe conversations about fashion and gender entirely.

As a public engagement project, the exhibition team has created a digital album that highlights 10 individuals from the Boston area whose perspectives reflect and expand on the themes of Gender Bending Fashion. Their portraits—taken by local photographer Ally Schmaling—and quotes are featured in a digital animation presented on three large screens located between the Blur and Transcend galleries of the exhibition. Additional photographs and text from the project can be explored on interactive screens in the adjacent Lizbeth and George Krupp Gallery, which also offers a variety of books on fashion, gender and related cultural issues for browsing. Visitors are encouraged to share their responses to the exhibition using comment cards found in the Krupp Gallery, as well as on social media using #GenderBendingFashion.

Interpretation materials contextualizing the exhibition include a free takeaway brochure, written by Finamore, and a timeline that connects select moments over the past century relating broader culture to fashion and gender, with an invitation for visitors to sound off on events that matter to them in the Krupp Gallery. The Museum also consulted on interpretation with gender studies scholar Matisse DuPont; fashion and gender historian Chloe Chapin; Cei Lambert, Program Manager, and Ruben Hopwood, Coordinator of the Trans Health Program, both of Fenway Health, a Boston-based LGBT healthcare, research and advocacy organization; and Dr. Jo Trigilio, Senior Lecturer, Program Director of Gender/Cultural Studies at Simmons University, who also edited a glossary of terms relating to gender for the exhibition.  

Exhibition Highlights

  • A striking dress from the “Annodami” collection (Spring/Summer 2017) by Italian designer Alessandro Trincone, which was worn by rapper Young Thug on the cover of his 2016 album JEFFERY
  • A suit from the “One Woman Show” (Autumn/Winter 2003) by Dutch design duo Viktor&Rolf, a collection inspired by the distinctive androgyny—both on and off the screen—of actor Tilda Swinton. The garment is accompanied by audio from the runway show, which features Swinton reciting an original poem about individuality, and footage from the 1992 film Orlando, in which she plays a protagonist who seamlessly transforms from a woman into a man and back into a woman.
  • Three pieces commissioned by the Museum especially for the exhibition: an ensemble from the “Boy Walks into an Exotic Forest” collection (Spring/Summer 2017) and floral metallic brocade dress (2017) designed by Alejandro Gómez Palomo, as well as a suit from the “Born Between Borders” (Spring/Summer 2014) collection designed by Walé Oyéjidé for Ikiré Jones
  • Garments worn by actor Marlene Dietrich, a binary-blurring icon who communicated her idea that “I am at heart a gentleman” via tailored men’s attire: Fancy Pants (1950s) designed by actress, author and pants proponent Kay Thompson and an evening ensemble of tails and a top hat (1930) by Travis Banton, which appears in the 1930 film Morocco
  • A red satin pantsuit with a skirt overlay (2018) custom-designed by Christian Siriano for Janelle Monáe
  • An evening ensemble by Jeanne Lanvin (1930s) that shows an early example of experiments with trousers for women
  • A tailored suit (2017) designed for a female attorney by Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn-based company that has responded to a recent resurgence of interest in more traditionally “masculine” suiting for a range of genders and body types
  • A Dandie Fashions jacket (1967) worn by Jimi Hendrix and a Freddie Burretti suit (1973) worn by David Bowie, which illustrate the 1960s–1970s “peacock revolution” in menswear that championed a brighter color palette and vivid psychedelic patterns
  • Suits by Dries van Noten (2014) and Alessandro Michele for Gucci (2017), both worn by and on loan from Vogue’s international editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, which exemplify a contemporary resurgence of the “peacock revolution”
  • Among the earliest garments in the exhibition: a bicycling corset (about 1895) and a women’s bicycling ensemble (about 1900) that conceals bloomers beneath a removable front panel fashioned to give the appearance of a skirt
  • Ready-to-wear clothing by Anvita Sharma of Two Point Two Studios and Fabio Costa of NotEqual, designed to be worn interchangeably by people of all genders and sizes
  • Three ensembles and runway footage from “Unisex Couture” (Fall/Winter 2012) by Rad Hourani, the first designer in history invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show a unisex collection during Paris Fashion Week
  • Shoes by Boston-based designer Thom Solo, including a pair worn by Lady Gaga in 2017

Programming

This spring and summer, the Museum presents an array of programming related to Gender Bending Fashion, kicking off with the MFA Late Nites on March 15. The after-hours celebration (8 pm–2 am) offers a sneak peek of the exhibition before the public opening, with a lineup of DJ sets and musical performances curated by local hip-hop artist Billy Dean Thomas and a fashion installation presented by dapperQ.

Walé Oyéjidé, founder and creative director of Ikiré Jones, presents a lecture at the Museum on April 24, followed by a screening of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (the film’s protagonist King T’Challa wears an Ikiré Jones scarf in a pivotal scene). On June 5, Liz Goldwyn, author, filmmaker and founder of the podcast The Sex Ed, moderates a conversation on gender and pop culture. The discussion will explore how the evolution of sexuality and revolution of nonbinary dress codes have made an indelible impression on the world of fashion.

MFA Film’s series “Gender Bending Fashion on Film” (April 18–May 2) highlights cinema foregrounding progressive fashions. Screenings include Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) with Tilda Swinton, Paul Feig’s stylish mystery-thriller A Simple Favor (2018) with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, the British sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) with David Bowie (preceded by a Sound Bites concert with Somerville-based duo The Wrong Shapes), and the 2018 biopic Colette starring Keira Knightley.

On April 17, “The City Talks: Bodies and Expressions” engages local artists, activists, entrepreneurs and city officials in a free panel discussion focused on themes found in Gender Bending Fashion. Artist demonstrations on April 7 and April 10 invite visitors to explore the creative methods of local designer Christian Restrepo, and on June 5, fellows from the MFA’s Teen Arts Council lead a series of Spotlight Talks inside the exhibition.

MFA Shop

The MFA is collaborating with the Phluid Project, “the world’s first gender-free store,” and offering items from the New York City-based company’s new spring line in the Museum’s Main Bookstore & Shop. Highlights include T-shirts, beanies and buttons, available in a variety of styles, as well as a gender-free top and skirt, both featuring the phrase “clothing has no gender.” The shop will also feature beauty products—including glitter, nail polish, liquid lips and liquid gloss—from Fluide, a collection of high-impact, cruelty-free makeup for all skin tones and gender expressions and identities. Additional offerings include gender-neutral jewelry by local designer Hiroshi Minato; necklaces and cuff bracelets from the “Pride” line by Atlantic Pewter and Glass; and a selection of books on fashion, gender and pop culture.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia; Art of Africa and Oceania; Art of the Ancient World; Prints and Drawings; Photography; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25), while five Open Houses offer the opportunity to visit the Museum for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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