Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor to date, cared little for the gender norms of her time. During the Civil War, the surgeon and outspoken advocate for women’s rights practiced her craft while wearing a dress-and-trouser combination known as the “Bloomer costume.” By the 1870s, she had abandoned the dress part of the outfit in favor of clothing considered exclusively for men. Enduring several arrests for the contrived crime of impersonating a man, Walker argued, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear my clothes.”
Walker is far from the first historical figure to don attire traditionally linked with the opposite gender—as evidenced by Gender Bending Fashion, an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston that draws on a century of game-changing dress, the practice of wearing boundary-blurring clothing spans a lengthy and rich timeline.
Speaking with Boston magazine’s Lexa Krajewski, curator Michelle Finamore explains that the show aims to explore how historically “gender binaries and gender boundaries have been blurred or disrupted” and how these precedents relate to the contemporary discussion surrounding gender expression.
More than 60 designer ensembles, as well as photographs, paintings, posters, music albums and runway footage, adorn themed rooms centered on disruption, gender blurring, and transcendence.
The first of the three categories offers a historical overview of cultural moments that challenged traditional norms. The second explores the increasingly ambiguous nature of masculine versus feminine fashion, and the last shifts the focus to contemporary designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Among the items on view are a tuxedo worn by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film Morocco (the gender-defying star’s dress was also the subject of a 2017 Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery exhibition), a bicycling corset dating to 1895, a 1973 Freddie Burretti suit (characteristic of the ’60s and ’70s “peacock revolution,” which found tightly fitted menswear appearing in bright colors and wild patterns) worn by David Bowie, and a red satin pantsuit with a skirt overlay custom-designed by Christian Siriano for the singer and actress Janelle Monáe.
Images and visual records of similarly transgressive attire span an impressive array of fashion trends: As Vogue’s Laird Borrelli-Persson observes, historical figures, including members of the Pachucas, a group of zoot suit-clad Mexican-American women active during the 1940s, appear alongside recent headline-makers like Billy Porter, a star of the FX series “Pose” who attended this year’s Oscars in a combination tuxedo-ball gown, and Young Thug, a rapper who wore an Allesandro Trincone skirt on the cover of his 2016 mixtape album No, My Name Is Jeffery.
“There are … these histories that everyone is aware of and they just haven’t thought about through the perspective of gender,” Finamore says in an interview with Vogue.
While Gender Bending Fashion aspires to balance mainstream, designer-oriented history with lesser-known boundary-pushing figures, there are still gaps in the timeline.
Nevertheless, the Associated Press’ Tracee M. Herbaugh point out, the fact that this is the first large-scale exhibit of its kind to be hosted at a major museum is significant in and of itself. As Finamore tells the AP, “The lines are getting more and more blurred,” leaving the door open for future historians to pick up the mantle and expand upon the story of non-binary fashion, both past and present.