"His & Hers" at The Museum at FIT

A new exhibit looks at how fashionable folks challenged gender tropes long before Janelle Mone wore tuxedos and guyliner became a word.

  • Photograph: Eileen Costa

    HisHers01mcqueendress

    Women's evening dress by Alexander McQueen (2008)
    In his clothing, McQueen sought to emphasize both the strength and beauty of women. The late designer's pioneering clothes were as impeccably tailored as they were edgy and eccentric. "This particular dress has that striking aspect with the black-and-white, very graphic cut leather [on the bodice], but it has a really traditional hourglass silhouette that sort of recollects the 1950s or even the 19th century," Hill observes. "I hate generalizing what's masculine and what's feminine," says Shimizu. "Because you can have someone like Alexander who creates these beautiful ornate pieces, and it's coming from a man. It works both ways."

  • Photograph: Eileen Costa

    HisHers02Mensgaultierskirt

    Men's skirt by Jean Paul Gaultier (circa 1987)
    "In Western culture, the skirt is almost exclusively a feminine garment," explains Farley. "For Gaultier to introduce a skirt as a masculine garment in the '80s was really challenging these gender boundaries." Echoing the curator's observation, Shimizu also references the forward-thinking designer's propensity to draw on other cultures and time periods for inspiration, likening this particular navy-wool--and--black-leather version to a Spanish cowboy's garb. "It's very caballero to me, kind of the way open chaps were worn," she notes.

  • HisHers03mensdressinggown

    Men's dressing gown (circa 1845)
    A stark contrast from the somber men's daytime looks of the period, this vibrant cotton robe typifies the more decorative items that gents sported in private. "We're coming from the 18th century and court dress, when menswear pieces were extremely ornate," notes Hill. "There was still a bit of that desire to show their personalities, and home was somewhere they could express that." What struck Shimizu about the housecoat was its semicinched waist, which initially led her to believe the garment was intended for a woman. On second glance? The likes of "Ebenezer Scrooge or Elton John."

  • HisHers04Womenslouiseboulanger

    Women's dress and jacket by Louise Boulanger (1929)
    Straying from the fitted, voluptuous forms of previous decades, the 1920s saw a steady rise in relaxed ladies' silhouettes. "[The cut of this dress] de-emphasizes the traditional curvy figure and introduces a more modern, slender shape," Hill says. "The check fabric is indicative of menswear, but [with the] silk fabric and the way it's draped on the body, it's still very feminine." Shimizu particularly appreciates the ensemble's color and classic form: "[Brown is] not an obvious choice, and everything about [the look] is just timeless to me."

  • Photograph: Eileen Costa

    HisHers05Womensysltux

    Women's tuxedo by Yves Saint Laurent (circa 1982)
    Dapper three-piece suits were strictly the realm of men until 1966, when French couturier Yves Saint Laurent created Le Smoking, the first slick tux designed specifically for ladies. "[Saint Laurent] was often quoted as saying that he thought there was no reason women shouldn't wear trousers and that they looked as sexy and feminine wearing pants as they did in a skirt," says Hill, referring to this example from the early 1980s. "It's just classic," Shimizu says. "It's super chic, and it's something all ladies, masculine or feminine, would want to have."

Photograph: Eileen Costa

HisHers01mcqueendress

Women's evening dress by Alexander McQueen (2008)
In his clothing, McQueen sought to emphasize both the strength and beauty of women. The late designer's pioneering clothes were as impeccably tailored as they were edgy and eccentric. "This particular dress has that striking aspect with the black-and-white, very graphic cut leather [on the bodice], but it has a really traditional hourglass silhouette that sort of recollects the 1950s or even the 19th century," Hill observes. "I hate generalizing what's masculine and what's feminine," says Shimizu. "Because you can have someone like Alexander who creates these beautiful ornate pieces, and it's coming from a man. It works both ways."

At one point in history, it was easy to divide clothing into two categories: men's and women's. But over time, visionary designers (from Coco Chanel to Commes des Garons' Rei Kawakubo) and their followers defied conventional thinking, creating unisex looks that blurred or even erased gender lines. This evolution is examined in "His & Hers," which opens Tuesday 30 at the Museum at FIT; the show reveals how men's and women's clothing has changed—and even overlapped—throughout the ages. We asked curators Colleen Hill and Jennifer Farley, along with androgynous style icon Jenny Shimizu, to weigh in on what five notable pieces say about the role of gender in fashion.

GENDER BENDER: "His & Hers": The Museum at FIT, Seventh Ave at 27th St (212-217-4558, fitnyc.edu). Tue--Fri noon--8pm, Sat 10am--5pm; free. Tue 30--May 10