Fashion for a Blurring Binary

BOSTON — It is a cat swimsuit, not a thesis assertion, and but someway the comfortable Rudi Gernreich garment — with its band collar, dot sample and Julie Newmar aura — emblematizes each the promise and the shortcomings of “Gender Bending Fashion,” a naggingly ill-defined survey of a century of gender blur.

Using high fashion, ready-to-wear and streetwear as its automobile, the exhibition, organized by Michelle Tolini Finamore at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, builds on a 2013 present by the curator that examined stubbornly entrenched gender associations we make with the colour pink. This time round, Ms. Finamore ambitiously got down to observe the regular, if sometimes zigzag, evolution of the methods wherein most every little thing we take into consideration vogue has been ruled by that hoary and tyrannical previous bogeyman — the binary.

That her present opens as binaries themselves are being dismantled ought to energise a curatorial exploration of the numerous methods vogue has been used throughout historical past to torque, remark upon or altogether flout the inflexible guidelines of sexuality and gender. (Cue: Joan of Arc.) Yet, disappointingly, it underscores as an alternative the dangers to this and different conventional establishments of being outpaced by cultural fault traces opening up outdoors its partitions.

Paging by way of a newspaper final week, for occasion, en path to see “Gender Bending Fashion,” I stumbled throughout a Louis Vuitton commercial that includes the redheaded mannequin Natalie Westling — a pouty designer darling who first appeared on a Marc Jacobs runway in 2013 (and who starred thereafter in campaigns for Prada, Versace, Chanel and Dior).

It seems almost too obvious to note how much more potent the Boston show might have been had it treated Mr. Gernreich as pivotal to fast-changing contemporary notions of gender in fashion, rather than a way-station on the long road from Deuteronomy (“The woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment”) to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

“I realized you could say something through clothes,” Mr. Gernreich once said in an interview with the The Los Angeles Times. To better understand him as a radical explorer of fashion’s tropes as stealth instruments of activism, consider his matching 1970s miniskirts for men and women, his unisex cat suit or the military-looking “Kent State Ensemble” that is included in the Boston exhibition while his braless bathing suit and infamous breast-baring “monokini” — for a time the most notorious article of clothing on the planet — mysteriously are not. (Costing $24 and never intended for mass production, the 1964 monokini was denounced by the Soviet Union, condemned by the Vatican and deemed immoral by the Republican Party, which somehow found a way to blame its existence on the Democrats.)

It may be too much to ask that a tuxedo worn on a dummy convey the subtle complexities at work in a performance by Marlene Dietrich in the groundbreaking, pre-Code classic “Morocco,” a 1930 film directed by Josef von Sternberg and still shocking in the adventurousness of its sexuality and gender play. (For those who have not had the pleasure, a précis: Dietrich, as the cabaret singer Amy Jolly, dresses in top hat and tails, performs a salacious song in French, kisses a female audience member on the lips and seduces a young Legionnaire played by Gary Cooper, who looks outlandishly pretty and half as butch as she does.)

Though hardly less intellectually ambitious than the Boston exhibition, the crowd-pleasing blockbusters familiar to us at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are seldom forced to sell a thesis as intricate as Ms. Finamore’s in “Gender Bending Fashion.” A jeweled papal tiara tends to speak for itself. It is far more challenging to communicate persuasively how transgressive Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedo evening suit for women — the famous “Le Smoking” — must have seemed when introduced in 1966; or to frame for viewers the symbolism worked into a suit from a 2003 Viktor + Rolf show inspired by fashion’s favorite androgyne, Tilda Swinton, and featuring a jacket with multiple collars from which the head of a pale Swinton lookalike emerges like that of a luna moth shedding its chrysalis; or to annotate the geopolitics underpinning the creation of a skirted man’s suit from his audacious 1985 collection titled “Afghanistan Repudiates Western Ideals” by an unknown named John Galliano. Even the Alessandro Trincone outfit — a skirt covered with scores of poetically drifting scraps of fabric — that opens the exhibition challenges viewers to piece together its lineage both as an article of clothing and a gesture of provocation.

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