Lots of peeps in New York City this Sunday will be donning their most colorful and creative hats for a march down Fifth Avenue in the 2017 Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival. It’s an annual tradition that fills the street with exuberant personal expression, thanks to people like my artist friend Carri Skoczek, pictured above in last year’s extravaganza.
Yet it was a plain black bowler hat I saw in a poster of artist Georgia O’Keeffe recently that prompted me to revisit society’s traditional ideas about the clothes we wear.
That photo by O’Keeffe’s husband Alfred Stieglitz and others of her dressed in signature black garments that shaped my image of Georgia O’Keeffe as a strong, beautiful and mysterious woman. It was how she presented herself to the world that I admired more than her classic paintings of New York skyscrapers, oversized flowers or bleached animal bones.
The “Living Modern” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum explores how O’Keeffe used clothing to assert her independence as a woman and an artist. And despite the fact that she dressed mainly for comfort, she also understood how what she wore shaped her image.
As a teenager she rejected the Victorian world of corsets and decorous dress codes into which she was born. A high school class portrait at the beginning of the exhibit shows all of the girls but O’Keeffe wearing a poufy-sleeved blouse and a pompadour hairdo topped with a big, floppy bow. She stood out even then, third from the right, with her hair pulled back into a long braid and dress sleeves tight around her wrists. The yearbook described her a girl who shunned established feminine styling: “A girl who would be different in habit, style and dress. A girl who doesn’t give a cent for men and boys still less.”
He class photo reminded me how my now-27-year-old kid had also expressed his independence as a high school student with clothing style, hair color, eyeliner and even his art. He’d stood out from other boys throughout the lower grades, too, wearing mostly tie-dye tees and bright-colored flight pants. He would have worn a dress in first grade if I’d let him. Years later he clued me in that if a t-shirt’s long enough, it’s a dress. But it was high school where he seemed to consciously defy the traditional ideas of gendered clothing. The outfit he chose to wear for his senior ID photo was not what anyone, myself included, would have expected: frilled collar, military jacket, eye makeup, and lip gloss.
Harry, who identifies as non-binary, was just expressing his inner self and his aesthetic. Thanks to the new language of gender, I now know his wardrobe was and is about gender expression. I watched his kindergarten dress-up box became the costume closet for his middle school movie-making, which in turn grew to become his extensive and fabulous wardrobe. I imagine at the turn of the century Georgia O’Keeffe hadn’t heard the term gender expression either. And those who gossiped about her all-black androgynous garments probably didn’t notice how similar those looks were to the shapes and lines in her paintings.
So if clothing can be artistic expression, then can’t gender expression be art?
Today’s youth continue to push the boundaries of gender and gender expression, defying the ideas that people have to fit into one of two gender boxes. Teenagers like rapper and actor Jaden Smith, a 2016 model for Louis Vuitton women’s wear, and rapper Young Thug, whose new album “Jeffrey” features him in a long dress and umbrella-style hat, are stepping outside the limits of what’s traditionally thought to be masculine or feminine dress.
They, along with so many other everyday teens, know there’s a whole lotta gray between the binary of black and white that insists humans must be either solely male/masculine or female/feminine. Please lead on, millennials!
And if clothing can be artistic expression, then can’t gender expression be art? And don’t we all have the right, if not the need, to experience and express ourselves creatively in whatever medium we choose? I like to think so, as I can hear Harry reminding me of RuPaul’s saying, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” So what do you feel like wearing today — hat or not hat — in this world that is a stage?
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