On Monday in a small auditorium at the Museum of Modern Art, speaker after speaker took the stage, dedicating seven minutes to the discussion of one fashion item (one for each letter of the alphabet) and its cultural significance. MoMA hosted this salon — entitled "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" — to prepare for an exhibit of the same name that will debut in 2017. Harold Koda spoke about the cheongsam, Tinker Hatfield about Nike Air, Valeire Steele about the little black dress, Mickey Boardman about the muumuu and Kerby Jean-Raymond and DeRay McKesson about the hoodie — to name just a few. For "U," 23-year-old transgender model and actress Hari Nef spoke to the crowd about "unisex" — a discourse we expected to be a typical examination of fashion's latest fascination with all things genderless or gender-bending.
"The truth is, I'm so tired of talking about gender in relation to fashion," said Nef. "Contrary to what some folks in previous panels have been saying, I do not think fashion is fertile ground for a discussion of gender. Because when we talk about gender, generally speaking, we're talking about the gender binary. We're talking about two options: male and female." She used the bathroom symbols of men and women as an example, then continued: "When you're talking about this rigid binary ... and then start talking about it in the context of objects, you're sublimating something that is so limited to begin with and making it even more limited." Moreover, she argued that the images and genres in fashion that are supposedly "subversive" to gender actually just reinforce the binary.
To illustrate her point, Nef referenced the Helmut Newton photograph of Yves Saint Laurent's fall 1996 Le Smoking suit. "The discourse around this image is that a woman gains this power, this dominance, this sexiness, from donning a man's suit," she said. "If she's sourcing that from a signifier of stereotypical masculinity, then how sustainable is that as a power source? If she's putting it on and taking it off, is that really a subversion of gender binaries or is just a reinforcement of that binary as we know it?" A photograph taken by Paolo Roversi of Jean Paul Gaultier's muse Tanel Bedrossiantz in a fall 1984 dress serves the same point.
Meanwhile, an image of Rad Hourani's fall 2010 unisex collection doesn't provide much substance, either: The clothing is shapeless, vaguely masculine and everyone is wearing heels with slicked back hair. "There's nothing," said Nef. "I see an erasure of the body, I see an erasure of identity regardless of gender. I see something that exists in a vacuum that doesn't really take an individual into account."
Nef concluded by recalling her first runway show: Hood by Air for spring 2015. Despite initial plans to dress her in just a harness top with her "budding breasts" out, she was given a pretty masculine look. "This was a point in my life where I didn't really look super-feminine and my body wasn't super-feminine," she said. "But it was this moment for me when I sort of realized that all of my hang-ups about gender that I was projecting on to clothes... hoping that they would communicate something about me, it didn't really cut it. And I wasn't really able to make sense of myself as a gendered person until I saw myself in the clothes, a person — moving, acting, being." In sum, it's more about looking at the people in the clothes and what they're doing, rather than relying on the clothing itself to break the gender binary.
When asked in a group discussion afterwards if fashion could truly be subversive when it comes to gender, Nef said:
"It's all about the way you contextualize clothing — particularly the way you contextualize clothing within institutions. I think specifically of what Alessandro Michele is doing at Gucci and how the garments themselves are things that maybe we've seen before at a vintage shop... but you take a floral blouse and you put it on a tall skinny guy and all of sudden you have this gesture of a weird gangly masculinity co-mingling with this gesture of frilly old-world femininity. And you put it all in a blender and something new comes out that gives consumers the heebie-jeebies and they go for it. I think that it's about relational aesthetics and it can't just be about the object anymore. It needs to be in the world and be on people — and the potential for that is limitless."
See all the "Items: Is Fashion Modern? Abecedarium" presentations in the live stream below.