There have been blips in history when women have tried to wear pants and failed or were unable to shift the paradigm. In 1851, women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer [who promoted pants for women inspired by Turkish attire, hence “bloomers.”] tries to offer a more rationale dress for women and failed. As women took up bicycling, tennis and golf, clothing for those sports affected the acceptability of pants. Civil War surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wore pants despite eight arrests for “inappropriate attire.” In 1993, Carol Moseley-Braun [also Barbara Mikulski] wore pants on the Senate floor. “Until I walked in the door I had no idea there was this unwritten rule,” Moseley-Braun said. Now we have Hillary Clinton’s white pantsuit as a political symbol.

Gender Bending Fashion” is the first large-scale exhibit of its kind to be hosted by a major museum. It is comprised of mixed-media: paintings, record covers and photographs. But a highlight for viewers will surely be the 70 gender-bending ensembles from big-name designers, such as Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garçons, and Walter Van Beirendonck, a member of the influential avant-garde group “Antwerp Six.”

Dietrich has long been hailed as a hero for gender fluidity. It wasn’t uncommon for her to wear top hats, shirts with French cuffs and cuff links, and pant suits tailored for men.

“She was both sides of the binary in that she was either extremely feminine or extremely masculine,” Finamore said.

The exhibit references the 1920s, a time when women first cut their hair short. Then it progresses to the 1960s and The Peacock Revolution, when menswear shifted from plain and simple to flamboyant, colorful and tailored to the body. The ‘60s is also when unisex attire became mainstream. And present day is thought to be the height of gender fluidity in fashion.

Each of these moments represent a cultural shift within society, said Jo Paloetti, author of the books “Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution” and “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.”

In the 1920s, women secured the right to vote and started working outside the home for the first time. The 1960s brought the sexual revolution, gay rights and second-wave feminism — people pushing back against traditional roles.Today, as the world questions the very relevance of gender definitions, cultural questions are taking visual form in fashion, Paloetti said.

That’s designed by Christian Siriano, who did the Janelle Monáe outfit we feature in the show. Porter is an actor who’s been pushing the envelope through dress. “My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up,” he wrote in Vogue. “To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean.” It’s fascinating to me that it’s considered so newsworthy. You’d think we would be beyond that...yet we aren’t because there is something so deeply entrenched about a man in a skirt. There’s a longer history of women in pants than men in skirts. It will be interesting to see where we’ll be in ten years.

When actor Billy Porter unveiled his combination tuxedo-ball gown at the Oscars last month, it got people talking.

Porter, the black and gay breakout star of the FX series “Pose,” had bucked traditional Academy Award attire — fancy frocks for the ladies and basic tuxedos for men.

A photo of Porter’s eye-catching Oscar garb is included in a new exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that opens to the public on Thursday. The exhibit titled, “Gender Bending Fashion,” examines moments in history when clothing transcended and muddled our understanding of gender.


The show was inspired, in part, by what’s happening right now in fashion, said Michelle Finamore, a fashion historian and curator.​

Gender bending Fashion.

Fashion embraces gender fluidity in a new show called "Gender Bending Fashion" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Infant girls are swaddled in pink. Boys in blue. Girls wear skirts. Boys pants. The clichés fall easily from our lips. “Clothes make the man,” we say; “who wears the pants,” signals dominance. “A basic purpose of costume is to distinguish men from women,” Alison Lurie writes in “The Language of Clothes.” Dress, traditionally, is the membership card of gender.

In an era of gender fluidity, all bets are off. As the binary of male/female falls by the wayside, fashion follows suit—and has done so periodically since 1507-1458 BCE, when the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt as pharaoh wearing male regalia and a false beard. More recently, the Italian designer Alessandro Trincone created an elegant ruffled dress that so captivated rapper Young Thug, he wore it on the cover of his 2016 album: No, My Name is Jeffery. The subject of gender and fashion takes on particular immediacy in the current setting of LGBTQIA+ rights and the impact of social media in community building and self-identification.


In “Gender Bending Fashion,” which runs from March 21 through August 25, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston explores the relationship between fashion and gender—the first time a major museum has addressed the subject (the Trincone dress is one of the costumes on display). Cathy Newman spoke with the show’s curator, Michelle Finamore, of the Museum’s Department of Textiles and Fashion Arts.