Art historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer examines the role of dress and gender in art.
In my closet, there is a black suit. I should really call it the black suit, because it is singular in its ability to make me feel like a supercharged Marlene Dietrich capable of moving mountains with my mind the second I feel its fabric on my skin. I’ve had the suit for more years than I’d care to say, and the day that I’ll have to accept its demise will be a sad day indeed, unless I find some way of extending its life. As I slipped into my current shirt-and-leggings uniform the other morning, it occurred to me that I haven’t worn the suit in a long time, and I’ve been missing the jolt only it can provide. I found myself thinking once again about the transformative power of clothing, a subject that’s been an obsession of mine since I long ago discovered the writings of fashion historians Aileen Ribeiro and Anne Hollander. In particular, I’ve long been fascinated by art historical instances of women and men wearing articles of dress associated with the other gender, and what these instances reveal about power relations at specific moments in the past.
The story of Hatshepsut (c. 1479–1458 B.C.), one of Ancient Egypt’s most successful rulers, offers an interesting point of entry into this subject. Sometime in the early years of the reign of her stepson and nephew, Thutmoses III, Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh, a title normally reserved for male royalty. The reasons for this remain unclear, although it’s been suggested that through this act, Hatshepsut was trying to protect the kingship of Thutmoses III, who was very young when he acceded the throne and for whom she had consequently served as regent. To help preserve and legitimize her special position, Hatshepsut had herself represented in art as an ideal king, a strong young man in a pharaonic dress, whose appearance owes much to long-established aesthetic conventions aimed at supporting Egypt’s religious and political stability. A few sculptures, including a particularly beautiful seated statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, provide a more individualized representation of Hatshepsut, and combine feminine physical traits such as breasts and slender limbs with masculine symbols of power, notably the nemes headdress, the pleated shendyt kilt and beaded belt, ceremonial clothing worn by male royalty. Inscriptions on Hatshepsut’s statuary invariably refer to her as a woman, reminding us that her goal was not to pass herself off as a man, but rather to link her being inextricable to the sanctity and authority of the male pharaoh by way of his image.
In Europe, from the middle ages onward there existed a strong literary and artistic tradition of showing topsy-turvy worlds in which up is down, wrong is right and—gasp—a woman is wearing the pants (both literally and metaphorically). While such content could at times have subversive aims, most often it sought to maintain existing power structures, frequently through the exploitation of humor and desire. Among popular subjects in this vein was the Greco-Roman myth of Hercules and Omphale, of which there existed several variations. Known for his legendary strength, Hercules murdered his friend in a fit of anger and then sought to make amends for his terrible action. An oracle advised him to sell himself and pay the proceeds to the victim’s father. In this way, Hercules entered the service of Omphale, Queen of Lydia, fulfilling her every command for three years, and ultimately becoming her husband. Some authors write of Hercules and Omphale switching clothing and of his having to perform menial tasks in feminine dress, episodes that especially captured the imagination of 16th- and 17th- century artists, including Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.
In his portrayal, Rubens shows muscular Hercules squirming uncomfortably as Omphale, standing tall on a plinth, reaches down to tug her lover’s ear in a gesture that is both playful and patronizing. Colorful “feminine” drapery conceals parts of Hercules’ body, while in his hand he holds a distaff, used for spinning, traditionally seen as woman’s work. Of phallic shape and pointed towards Omphale, the distaff may also be read as a symbol of his genitalia—no match for the usual giant club he wields. Omphale has taken possession of that, and casually rests her elbow on it, just as she has helped herself to Hercules’ lion pelt, a remnant of the fierce Nemean lion he slaughtered now slung on her shoulder. Rubens’ rendition was designed to spark a smile in his audience, as well as pleasure—the titillating pleasure of seeing rules transgressed and also of spying nearly nude bodies presented in a most conspicuous way. Couched in amusing and pleasurable terms, the painting’s central message stood to be received all the more effectively—namely that changing the “natural” order of things is detrimental, as proved by Hercules’ displeasure and the anxious expressions of the servant and girls witnessing the scene.
In real life, a variety of practices involving costuming offered people of different echelons of society an opportunity to shed their gendered identities temporarily. Mardi Gras, the period of indulgence that precedes Lent in the Christian faith, was an occasion for masquerading and watching all manner of theatrical performances. Since the stage was considered no place for respectable women, it was common throughout Europe for men to perform female roles. The central figure in Frans Hal’s “Merrymakers at Shrovetide” is generally recognized as doing precisely that. Sporting an ostentatious gown and unusual hairstyle, the actor is likely a young man, whose laurel “crown” suggests he has been elected “queen” for the day’s Mardi Gras celebrations, presiding over a court of bawdy revelers (fellow members of a chamber of rhetoricians, a kind of dramatic society then prevalent in Holland).
While carnival was appreciated in privileged circles as well, by the 16th-century courtly masked entertainments increasingly had lofty intellectual aspirations with political objectives, and their design was entrusted to the leading artists of the day. The nobility (male and female) was both spectator and participant in these events, whether royal entries or performances involving dancing and the recitation of lines. Inviting courtiers to wear splendid costumes and engage in role-playing was a way of delighting them while diverting their attention, which in turn helped quell tensions and strengthen their collective allegiance to the governing body. Among those rulers who relied heavily on masked entertainments to strengthen her position was Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France (1519–1589). One event in particular merits mentioning here: a performance honoring Catherine and her then ruling son, King Charles IX, held at Bayonne in 1563. At one point there appeared a group of male courtiers dressed as women who explained that they were knights from Gaulle (Ancient France) whose ladies had been so cruel to them that they had begged the gods to transform them into women so that they could no longer feel “the pangs of love.” They go on to describe how in body they might be women but in mind and strength they remained men, a concept aimed at flattering Catherine’s own merit as ruler even though it hardly seems like a compliment to us today. Enactments like this were rooted in Plato’s myth of the Androgyne which held that prior to humanity, there existed a class of beings that were both men and women at the same time and were perfect in their wholeness, only to be split apart as humans, each condemned to experience constant longing for their missing half. Incidentally, whether it’s an “innie” or an “outie,” Plato would have told you that your navel is the remnant of that brutal separation.
In the 19th century, artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) gained fame and financial independence for her grand, meticulous representations of powerful animals when such subject matter was hardly seen as suitable for a woman. Devoted to her profession, Bonheur didn’t hesitate to sketch at horse fairs and even slaughterhouses, adopting men’s working clothes in order to move unhindered in these spaces. She did so even though it was illegal in France at the time for women to appear publicly in men’s clothing for so-called morality reasons. Special “cross-dressing permits” were very rarely issued to women on medical grounds; although healthy, Bonheur was able to obtain one, presumably because of her success as an artist. Bonheur did not abandon dresses entirely—doing so would have risked alienating her and so undermining her efforts to further the profession of woman artist—but she preferred to wear pants at home and certainly when she was working or engaging in other “male” activities such as riding horses astride. It’s in menswear that Bonheur received French President Sadi Carnot at her studio, a visit that took place a few years before he made her an officer of the Legion of Honor for her contributions to France’s cultural prestige. It’s in trousers too that she is shown in one of my favorite portraits of her (now in the musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux) by fellow woman artist, George Achille-Fould. Holding her easel and brush, Bonheur stares candidly at the viewer while flanked by her impressive paintings, asserting her hegemony over a space (the artist’s studio) traditionally perceived as wholly masculine both in reality and in art.
Ultimately, whatever your style, a few things are certain: your choice of clothing impacts how you feel and speaks for you as loudly as your words, often even louder.
Diane von Furstenberg, inventor of the iconic wrap dress, once declared: “Feel like a woman, wear a dress!,” a statement that highlights how Western fashion has tended to be mired in supporting a binary gender system. Today, there is a growing appreciation of gender as a fluid construct, and the fashion world has taken notice, with more and more designers envisioning clothing that eschews categorization as “his” or “hers.” For instance, UK department store Selfridge’s has created “The Concept Space” to provide a genderless shopping experience for its patrons, while online retailer the Phluid Project invites clients to shop “beyond the binary.” Ultimately, whatever your style, a few things are certain: your choice of clothing impacts how you feel and speaks for you as loudly as your words, often even louder. What makes you the most comfortable as a person may be the least comfortable to wear—or not. It may exist within conventions or seek to reinvent them. In the end, the important thing is to respect the freedom of others while nurturing your own individual sartorial truth and harnessing its power. There is happiness to be found in that, which is why I’ve found that the best accessories for my black suit are some very pointy heels and a genuine smile.