BOSTON — It is a cat suit, not a thesis statement, and yet somehow the snug Rudi Gernreich garment — with its band collar, dot pattern and Julie Newmar aura — emblematizes both the promise and the shortcomings of “Gender Bending Fashion,” a naggingly ill-defined survey of a century of gender blur.
Using haute couture, ready-to-wear and streetwear as its vehicle, the exhibition, organized by Michelle Tolini Finamore at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, builds on a 2013 show by the curator that examined stubbornly entrenched gender associations we make with the color pink. This time around, Ms. Finamore ambitiously set out to track the steady, if occasionally zigzag, evolution of the ways in which most everything we think about fashion has been governed by that hoary and tyrannical old bogeyman — the binary.
That her show opens as binaries themselves are being dismantled ought to energize a curatorial exploration of the countless ways fashion has been used across history to torque, comment upon or altogether flout the rigid rules of sexuality and gender. (Cue: Joan of Arc.) Yet, disappointingly, it underscores instead the risks to this and other traditional institutions of being outpaced by cultural fault lines opening up outside its walls.
Paging through a newspaper last week, for instance, en route to see “Gender Bending Fashion,” I stumbled across a Louis Vuitton advertisement featuring the redheaded model 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).
I stared for a while trying to figure out what about it bugged me and then remembered that, in March, Westling had gone public with his gender transition. Although he continues to model, it is now as Nathan Westling. I flipped open my phone then to Instagram and up popped a viral image of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shaking hands at the Capitol with Jonathan Van Ness, the bearded grooming expert from the Netflix reality show “Queer Eye.” She was wearing a snappy magenta pantsuit for the photo op; he was dressed in a pink sweater and a pleated midi skirt.
That cat suit previously mentioned was designed in 1970 by Mr. Gernreich; and if ever there were an unjustly neglected American designer and gender rebel, he’s the one. Just under two decades ago, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia staged a curatorial rescue operation, attempting to retrieve Mr. Gernreich from obscurity and restore him to his rightful place in fashion history. This visionary Austrian-born immigrant arrived in the United States in 1938 with his parents, penniless Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Anschluss, and went on to become one of the most decorated designers of his era; a four-time winner of the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award (the forerunner of the CFDA Awards); an inductee in the Fashion Hall of Fame and, according to Time, one of the “all-time fashion icons.”
The Philadelphia show, “Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion” — using an often-quoted Gernreich aphorism — was adapted from one mounted a year earlier at the Neue Galerie Graz in Vienna and might well have succeeded in its mission had fate not intervened in the form of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which occurred just days before it opened. Revolutionary frocks were the last thing people had on their minds at the time.
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.)
Mr. Gernreich, who died in 1985 at just 62, frequently prophesied that the day would come when clothing would no longer be segregated into categories of male or female, and it is no stretch to see in him a progenitor of contemporary adherents to that notion — designers as otherwise unalike as Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, or Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, or Alejandro Gomez Palomo of the Madrid-based label Palomo Spain.
A further line of descent can easily be traced from Mr. Gernreich — who helped found and fund the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest “homosexual rights” organizations in the country — to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pioneers Ms. Finamore positions as central to the evolution of fashion away from the binary and its constrictions, and whose video accounts of their struggles to find dimensioned expression of their sexualities and genders are projected in the Krupp Gallery adjacent to the main exhibition.
Everyday tales told by people like Tanekwah Hinds, a health care coordinator who characterizes her own style — one blending “femininity and masculinity together,” as “Dapper femme” — light up “Gender Bending Fashion.” They provide a narrative dimension otherwise lacking in a show that tantalizes viewers with great designs by “boundary pushing” designers and worn by often adventurous individuals while frustratingly leaving us to rely on wall texts (there is no catalog) to piece together evolutionary through lines.
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.
Sure, it helps to know that the Atlanta rapper Young Thug caused an internet brouhaha when he wore it on the cover of his 2016 mixtape album, “No, My Name Is Jeffery,” and Ms. Finamore makes the obligatory citation. Yet the history of renegade sexuality is often a story of missing begats and — in cases like that of, say, a pioneer like Mr. Gernreich, it feels obligatory both to retrieve them and to note for viewers that we have been down this road before.
For an exhibition as scrupulous as “Gender Bending Fashion” is about providing a map of the way-stations along the arc of gender identity and expression — “agender” to “genderqueer” to nonbinary to trans — the effort to establish lineages can seem disappointingly attenuated. Before Young Thug came along, after all, there was Prince in his heels and velvets, and André 3000 in his platinum wigs and pink jumpsuits, and Little Richard in his eyeliner and lacquered beehive, and the blues singer Gladys Bentley headlining the Ubangi Club in Harlem in a white top hat and tails — “a large, dark, masculine lady whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard,” as Langston Hughes once wrote, adding of this particular and largely forgotten gender-bender that she was a “perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”
Gender Bending Fashion
Through Aug. 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston; 617-267-9300, mfa.org.