It’s a jaw-dropper. Icy blue ruffles cascade around the body like a gust of wind.
Is it a dress? Is it armor?
For Young Thug — the rapper in the beautiful gown — and designer Alessandro Trincone, the gender-neutral garment is both. The dress fights against stereotypes of what masculinity is supposed to look like.
Young Thug made hip-hop history when he wore it on the cover of his 2016 mixtape, “Jeffrey.”
Now that iconic creation isn’t just on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as part of the new “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibit, it’s the cover art for the fliers and the MFA events calendar.
We’ve seen androgyny for decades, but this show traces a century of fashion’s relationship to gender and the way we use it to express ourselves beyond the boxes offered to us.
And to see a rapper named Young Thug rock a couture dress unties the strings that have bound masculinity to a certain set of toxic ideals. In a 2016 Calvin Klein ad, he said, “You could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”
Our deeply personal relationship with gender is at the center of “Gender Bending Fashion,” open through Aug. 25.
Stark white walls have been painted black as viewers are invited to explore the different ways in which we all celebrate, reject, and claim identity.
Michelle Finamore, the Penny Vinik curator of fashion arts for the MFA, said clothing is the most accessible form of art. Telling the story through fashion reaches a broader audience.
“Not everyone has a Picasso on their wall, but everyone has clothes and opinions about them,” she says. “Everyone can use fashion to blur the lines between public and private expression in a way no other medium can. Some people use it to make a statement, others use it to blur into the background, and that to me is amazing.”
In bringing this show together, it was important to remember the hidden histories.
“When you think about the stories that have been told, something or someone is always left out,” she says. “It’s a challenge, but you have to be a little more dogged in your approach and make sure you are being as inclusive as you can.”
Compassion, she says, is the point. Hopefully, people leave the exhibit with their hearts open.
People from around the world have room on the walls and displays here. There are men in skirts, women in tuxes, them in genderless gear.
There’s the importance of zoot suits and the role of streetwear. There are the shoes that aren’t just for walking. Heels that are a catalyst for conversations.
Many people are starstruck by the 10-inch sky-high stacked platforms that Newton native Thom Solo made for Lady Gaga.
But there are three other pairs on display in the exhibit. Handcrafted with fine Italian fabrics and designed with architectural inspiration, each pair was created to reclaim the stories we’ve been told about women. The shoes aren’t dainty. They aren’t Carrie Bradshaw sexy. They are strong, defiant, and commanding pieces of art.
Like the Waterhouse Boot. The black leather platform ankle boot atop a gold-plated bronze fish-hook heel is inspired by both “A Mermaid,” the 1900 painting by John Waterhouse, and the ways in which mermaids (and women) have been depicted as love-luring or blood-thirsty. The boot is a claiming of power and agency.
People often see heels towering high and wonder how a woman might walk. Solo works with orthopedic soles. He doesn’t subscribe to beauty as pain or beauty for the male gaze.
“Fashion is about imagination, creativity, and armor,” he says. “Women are powerful and these heels are an extension of that. If a man decides he wants to wear a pair of heels because it heightens his feelings of himself, then great, if it makes him feel powerful. I just want to depict a strong, beautiful, powerful individual.”
Sometimes that means the toughness of femininity and the elegance of masculinity.
Walé Oyéjidé designs with the mission to couch both Africa and masculinity in beauty.
The Vines II Suit, from “Born Between the Borders,” is on display draped with a St. Michael des Maasai scarf. The design, made with Samuel Hubler for Ikiré Jones, is slim cut, silk and cotton, in vibrant red lines like branches all along the black suit. It’s nothing short of regal.
He never thought of it as gender-bending, but as storytelling — or retelling.
“There are so many stock images that come to mind when I say the word ‘Africa’; images that come to mind are starving children, corrupt politicians, war, famine,” says Oyéjidé, the Philadelphia-based lawyer-turned-designer. “These are reflexes that come to mind even for those who have been to places and traveled. We still think of ourselves through the images of Western media.”
For six years, he’s used fashion to rebrand what it means to be not just an African immigrant or a man but to be a person. His work was featured in “Black Panther.”
“To see human beings as nuanced and elaborate, to have passion and joy and failures — just as we all do,” he says. “And it’s all done through the lens of stopping to see something beautiful to the eye. When we do that, we stop to see the human being reflected in the picture.”
For Boston-based photographer Ally Schmaling, getting the picture right is a revolution. As part of the exhibit, the MFA asked Bostonians to discuss their style story and gender philosophy. Schmaling, known for their queer and nonbinary portraits project, produced a series of images to tell each person’s truth.
Two questions guide their portraiture sessions: Are there ways that you would like to be represented? Are there specific ways you do not want to be represented?
“The images of a subject and their voice cannot be divorced from each other,” Schmaling says. “What I’m most interested in is creating physical and emotional space where people can feel like themselves and experience vulnerability in a way that feels powerful to them. If we can put powerful self-representation in the hands of our most vulnerable, we can shift power dynamics.”
For them, especially when shooting the LGBTQ+ community, autonomy is a priority.
“Portraiture surrounding queer bodies and trans bodies runs the risk of ogling because the sense of otherness can be amplified in media, disengaging bodies from their personhood. But this was a beautiful way to see my community in the walls of an institution in such a joyful way and I hope people come away with a sense of freedom.”
But it’s about more than the liberation of finally seeing ourselves in spaces we’ve gone underrepresented. What does it mean to the straight, white, and rich American who is often represented in spaces of power?
“There are other angles of the human mosaic. This is not just a gift to me and people who look like me,” Oyéjidé says of the inclusive exhibit. “What does it mean to those whose lives were enriched because they are not looking at the same old images?”
When we see the beauty in those who look and live nothing like us, we blur, bend, and break an important line — the one that creates a hierarchy of visibility.Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.