PARIS — The warm-up act for the Maison Margiela spring 2019 show Wednesday morning at the Grand Palais was a looped black-and-white PSA-style video, grainy and self-consciously amateurish, in which various people talked about their fight for self-definition and self-determination. A singer described her refusal to kowtow to cultural expectations about femininity, pointing to her deadlocks and tattoos. Model Hanne Gaby Odiele discussed being born intersex and the journey toward self-awareness — more than just a fight against inaccurate pronouns.
Each story ended with “My Mutiny” — a battle cry to resist the orthodoxy. Like any 21st century battle cry, it was accompanied by a hashtag. #MyMutiny.
What followed was a collection that Margiela creative director John Galliano dubbed “Co-ed.” Put simply, it meant that he was showing both menswear and womenswear on the runway. But he was also engaging in what has become fairly common practice in the industry: celebrating non-gendered fashion, gender-blurring and gender-as-performance. In this collection, the clothes can be worn by anyone. Some pieces are androgynous. Others aim to make a more pointed argument — that clothing is not gendered, our society is, and as a result, we’ve created an artificial and limiting language of fashion. Ruffles are not inherently feminine. Strapless tops are not necessarily feminine. They are just flourishes and silhouettes. They are neutral.
Fashion should not define us, is the point; it should allow us to be whoever it is that we want to be. #MyMutiny.
For his spring 2019 collection, Galliano took liberties with the gray flannel suit. His runway was filled with deconstructed suit jackets and jackets that had been spliced with a skirt to create a cape-like garment with a waistband that hung around the shoulders. He sliced open jackets, turned them into bodysuits and made them into dresses. He stripped away all the details so that some were little more than a few yards of fabric with the white chalk markings of a tailor.
There was something familiar and solid but also daring about these pieces. Galliano had taken the most recognizable garment — utterly classic and symbolic of Western authority and order — and transformed it into a riddle.
The clothes were worn by an array of models: feminine, masculine, androgynous. Most of them walked with a steady gaze and embodied a self-confident ease.
But in particular, there were masculine-looking models who, when wearing clothes pulled from the feminine vernacular, turned their runway walk into more than just an attention-seeking gambol. Instead of stepping into the clothes, they wore them as if they were a costume. They zombie-walked down the runway with an exaggerated, lumbering gait. These models dared you to declare them weird even as they worked their hardest to create a jarring spectacle. How far can they push you? How much diversity can you except?
If gender is performance, what does it mean when the performance of femaleness is deliberately, objectively bad?
The clothes exposed the body in unflattering ways. It turned a spotlight on uniqueness in the style of an old-fashioned sideshow. Come and gawk at the hairy-legged human in an ill-fitting dress! See the gangly youth in the one-shoulder sparkly top hanging strategically off-kilter!
Fashion’s exploration of gender norms is a popular fascination, but it isn’t new. More than 30 years ago, Jean Paul Gaultier was playing mix-and-match with gender traditions on his runway, putting men in tailored skirts and sarongs and putting women in pinstriped suiting. The difference is that when Gaultier did it, no matter who was wearing what, everyone looked splendidly at home in their attire. Their performance? Oscar-worthy. There was no tantrum-throwing demand for attention or for validation because none was required — at least on a personal level.
Gaultier’s gender-blurring models exuded confidence and cool dignity. Many on the Galliano runway came across like a case study in insecurity. Their clothes are more like therapeutic tools than forms of self-expression.
And what about the clothes themselves? When designers put women into masculine attire, they do so with a sure hand. They seem to inherently understand the technical nips and tucks required to make a pair of trousers hang properly over feminine hips. The wearer doesn’t have to exaggerate anything about herself. She can just be. The greater challenge, it seems, is taking something from the feminine vernacular and adjusting it so that it sits right on a masculine body.
Now that gender, as a sliding scale, has been named and politicized and hash-tagged, it has become more complicated. Perhaps it always was and the brave souls who expressed their individuality in the past simply made it look easy.
Is fashion helping to blaze a trail with clothes that are truly gender-blurring? Or is it providing costumes for a spectacle? Is #MyMutiny part of a transformative journey?
When the runway production ended, guests emerged from the Grand Palais to find a matte black bus parked out front with a video monitor attached to the side. The now familiar grainy footage flickered with the same faces. But here was the morning’s big reveal: Mutiny is the name of the new fragrance from Maison Margiela. It’s another part of the fashion side show.
Gender is not just performance. It’s also marketing.
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