By Alex Joseph, Fashion and Textile Studies MA '15
An alumna explains Gender Bending Fashion, her show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In Gender Bending Fashion, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston(MFA), curator Michelle Tolini Finamore, Museum Studies: Costume and Textiles ’98, charts a journey across the spectrum of gender expression. Today, a social movement to transcend the male/female binary is reflected in cutting-edge style. Finamore’s show highlights designers, outfits, and celebrities that blurred traditional categories in fashion over the last 100 years.
The show includes significant input from Boston’s LGBTQIA+ communities. Finamore says social media led the gender revolution by helping members of marginalized groups organize, so to encourage participation, she also sourced images from Instagram for a display. Approximately 4,700 locals attended an opening-night reception. Writing for Vogue, Laird Borrelli-Persson, Museum Studies: Costume and Textiles ’96, praised the show for addressing “a vital, of-the-moment cultural discussion while at the same time placing it within a historical framework.”
Finamore learned the material culture approach to fashion (which places objects within a societal context) from Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT and her professor in the MA program now called Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory Museum Practice. Later, Finamore earned a PhD in the history of decorative arts and material culture at Bard College, where she wrote a thesis on fashion in silent films. Now the MFA’s Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts, she’s worked there in various capacities for nine years.
“We think of the exhibition as the opening of a dialogue,” Finamore recently told the hosts of the podcast Dressed. “It’s not the final word on anything. The conversation changes by the day.”
Alessandro Trincone, “Annodami”, Spring/Summer 2017. Photograph by Gioconda & August. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Above: The cover photo of Young Thug’s 2016 album Jeffery, showing the rapper in this dress from Alessandro Trincone’s “Annodami” collection, was a signature image for the exhibition, since both artists see the gesture as empowering. “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender,” Young Thug has said.
Above: The MFA put out a call online for photos of gender-nonconforming Bostonians in advance of the show, and Tanekwah’s “dapper femme” look rose to the top. Finamore says she incorporated street style to keep the exhibition “close to real, lived experience.” Nonbinary people often face harassment in public, but in the show, large-scale display screens celebrate their difference.
Viktor & Rolf A/W 2003, One Woman Show, Look 32. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Above: Look 32 from Viktor & Rolf’s 2004 “One Woman Show” collection drew on androgynous actor Tilda Swinton as inspiration. (All the models in the show were Swinton lookalikes.) Swinton’s role as the eponymous gender-morphing protagonist of the 1992 film Orlando remains a touchstone for nonbinary fashion, Finamore says.
Dandy Queens, Paris 2014. Photographer: Prisca M. Monnier. Photo courtesy Prisca M. Monnier and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Above: Standard fashion history texts often leave out contributions from people of color and unconventional individuals, Finamore says, and she wanted the show to be inclusive. Prisca Monnier’s 2014 fashion editorial Dandy Queens featured black models and flouted the traditional fashion dichotomy of suits for men and skirts for women. Among the photographer’s inspirations was Mary Edmonds Walker, the Civil War surgeon and suffragist who wore pants throughout her life.
Unisex Couture Look #3 – Coat – From Rad Hourani Unisex Couture Collection #9, Fall/Winter 2012. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Above: The final room in the exhibition contains a section called “Transcend,” which presents contemporary designers like Canadian Rad Hourani who, with outfits like “Unisex Couture Look #3,” tries “to do away with the fashion binary altogether,” Finamore says.
Above: For a gender bending show, should your mannequins be male, female, or neither? “In my perfect world, we would have invisible mounts,” Finamore says, though that solution wouldn’t work for Belgian Walter Van Bierendonck’s glorious green outfit, left, which comes with a head piece. Designer Palomo Spain employs male models to show fashions like the metallic brocade floral cape, center, but anyone can wear them. Comme des Garçons created the femme/butch look on the right.
Image at top of page and above: Gender Bending Fashion exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. March 21 – August 25, 2019. Photographer: Michael Blanchard. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Listen to Finamore’s interview on Dressed, the podcast written and hosted by Fashion and Textiles alumnae April Calahan ’10, special collections associate and curator of manuscript collections, and Cassidy Zachary ’13, a PhD candidate in History at the University of New Mexico.
The exhibition closes August 25.
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