Wearing Gender on the Sleeve: A Q&A With the Curators of FIT's "His & Hers" Show

Black and white herringbone squares fit snugly against a mannequin's torso, billowing out down the arm before gathering into the cuff at her wrist in a shape reminiscent of the Gibson Girl. The other half of the garment, however, takes on a very different silhouette: the classic men's tailcoat. While the item itself isn't unisex (it's from a women's wear collection), its aesthetic speaks to today's sartorial zeitgeist of androgyny.Designed by New York-based label La Disposition, the piece is on display in "His & Hers," an exhibition running through May 11 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology that presents a study of the relationship between gender and fashion by examining menswear and women's wear over the past 250 years.

Making gender distinctions between masculine and feminine appearances may feel like a natural reaction, but sartorial gendering is not an instinct, according to FIT assistant curators Colleen Hill and Jennifer Farley, who organized the exhibition. Nineteenth-century writer Thomas Carlyle wrote in his opus "Sartor Resartus" that most people invariably regard clothes "as a property, not an accident, as quite natural and spontaneous, like the leaves of trees, like the plumage of birds" — forgetting that clothing is a conceit, and that each step of the dressing process entails a choice, beginning with gender. And while men and women have mostly dressed according to inherited notions of "his” and "hers," there have been many instances in history when menswear did not look "masculine" and women's dress did not look "feminine." (That this is case in today's fashion goes without saying).

These historical anomalies are exactly what Hill and Farley sought to examine. "We were intrigued by the idea of masculine/feminine clothing, which has been a trend in contemporary fashion," said Hill. "Tracing that idea over the past 250 years proved to be interesting."

"His & Hers" presents an opportunity to mull over the aesthetic differences and similarities between men's and women's clothing over the last two centuries, with mannequins paired side by side to best illustrate the comparisons. One of the first examples that the show offers is a late 1960s women's pinstripe pantsuit next to a black velvet men's version (paired with a bright purple bow tie). By today's standards, a women's pantsuit is hardly cause for surprise, but at the time it was still radical for such a silhouette to be incorporated into popular women's fashion.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the mere fact that menswear gets equal coverage, since it is usually underrepresented in costume exhibitions. The curators explained that this emphasis on menswear was one of their inspirations for the show. "The Museum has a large menswear collection, but it's not featured as frequently as our women's wear pieces," Farley said. "We wanted to do a show that would highlight this lesser-known part of our collection." Writer Eugenie Dalland spoke to the curators for ARTINFO about their exhibition, contemporary trends, and the future of gendered clothing.

The reasons why menswear and women's wear alternately differ from and resemble each other could fill volumes. Do you think that these changes are primarily based on cultural and societal environments? Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smoking pantsuit, for example, was conceived during the same decade as the 1960s Women's Liberation Movement.

Cultural and societal changes can correspond to trends in fashion. Designers are not creating their clothing in a vacuum — however fashion cannot be viewed as a mirror of what’s happening in society, it's more complex than that. I'm not sure that anyone can say exactly why a certain trend comes to be.

You mention that some designers are particularly focused on bridging the male/female divide and challenging the exclusive definitions of "his” and "hers" clothing. Are these designers more conceptual and less mainstream? 

The idea of bridging the male/female divide can be done in a way that is both wearable and flattering. Albert Kriemler of Akris — whose mustard yellow cashmere suit we feature in the exhibition — believes the masculine/feminine divide to be highly influential on his work. Although his women's suit is clearly influenced by menswear, the choice of fabric, proportions, and cut are well-suited to a woman's figure, and the result is certainly feminine overall.

Trends of androgyny in fashion have become especially prevalent over the past 50 years. The 1960s pantsuit, the 1980s power suit, the 1990s conceptual designs of Comme des Garcons that blatantly challenged "feminine" ideals, and even today's unisex hipster trend — think "skinny jeans" and American Apparel — are testaments to the fact that fashion and style are no longer bound by sex or gender. What are your projections for these trends over the next 50 years?

Well it's not something that's going to go away. I think it seems to go in waves. This season there was a return to garments that had a more traditionally feminine silhouette. There's always the option though to go the other way now, which is interesting.

Designers now have the freedom to explore androgyny, or to explore the conventions of gender. Someone like Jean Paul Gaultier is an example.

It's hard for us to predict. In the 1960s, Rudi Gernreich was certain that men and women would be wearing the same clothing by the 1980s, and a number of designers in the early 1970s thought that "unisex" jumpsuits would come to dominate fashion. Obviously neither of those things happened. It's almost impossible to predict if that will ever happen, or if men and women will still continue to prefer distinctly gendered clothing.