When Marlene Dietrich was filmed in a tuxedo, studio executives were infuriated. David Bowie elicited a similar reaction when he wore a dress on an album cover. Although these incidents were separated by forty-one years, during which dress codes softened considerably, societal attitudes toward gender-bending remained rigid. By 1971 a woman could wear pants for comfort and a man could wear bold patterns for style, but overt challenges to gender distinctions were still strictly verboten.
A new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston examines this history in relation to present-day fashion. Important moments in the movement toward sartorial fluidity are represented in garments such as bloomers and harem pants, and drawings of Yves Saint Laurent’s 1966 Le Smoking collection. The exhibit also delves into popular culture, with images of Dietrich and Bowie, brought up to date with an album photo of the rapper Young Thug in a dress by Alessandro Trincone.
Although the motivations for gender-bending are as varied as the wearers of gender-bending attire, one of the most persistent and compelling is political: a statement against gender biases. Myriad forms of discrimination converge on the body, and the most direct form of resistance is to challenge standards of bodily representation. Of course this explains the persistent vehemence of societal censure.
Citing examples like Young Thug, as well as the prevalence of cross-dressing seen on social media, the MFA exhibition makes the case that society has become more accepting. The political realities of our time hardly support this conclusion. Biases are still ubiquitous outside the worlds of popular entertainment and Instagram.
More interesting is the trajectory traced by the exhibition from cross-dressing binaries through unisex utopianism to nuanced gender ambiguity. Recent garments by designers such as Rad Hourani show how the basic premises of gender bias can be rejected through the invention of new sartorial vernaculars. Instead of bending genders with alternative cuts and folds, these garments start from whole cloth.