When an exhibition opens that truly marks history in the making, of course Glamcult has to find out more. Speaking to curator EJ Scott, we discovered the whys, hows, and whats of the Museum of Transology, now on show at the Fashion Space Gallery in London. Delving into the fashion industry’s influence on binary gender codes and—the struggle of—shopping as a trans person, amongst others, this exhibit tells you everything you need to know about (trans)gender.
Why do you think it’s so important to put on this exhibit?
This particular moment in the burst of attention to the trans experience is often referred to as the ‘trans tipping point’. It reflects a wider shift in social awareness surrounding an understanding of gender being on spectrum, and neither arbitrary, fixed or biologically determined. More and more we see what are pitched as ‘success’ stories that posit the idea of the ‘before’ and ‘after’, ‘you never could tell’ exposés. In reality, most trans people’s lives aren’t about ‘passing’. This spectacularisation of the trans experience needs to be tackled by the representation of real trans people’s lives told in our own voices. These stories need to be preserved in museums just like everyone else’s, yet even in the heritage sector they are missing from collections— having historically been read solely as expressions of alternative sexualities, for example. Now is the time to collect and preserve objects that reflect trans people’s gender journeys in order to ensure this significant moment in the UK’s social history is not lost.
What sort of reaction are you hoping it will evoke from your audience?
On opening night so many people were moved to tears that I was debating putting out boxes of tissues. What I hope is evoked is genuine empathy, a greater understanding of the diversity of trans lives and a broader awareness that understanding trans lives is part of a bigger story—trans equality is a further step in the fight for gender equality for all people.
Museum of Transology is set out to debunk “rigid gender stereotypes and biological determinism”. Do you think it’s successful in doing this?
The sheer breadth of objects and stories DOES do this! There are donations from intersex people, non-binary people, binary trans people, people who have surgery, people who have no intention of having surgery, nearly 30 objects relating to hormonal transition, other fashion items and prosthetics used to reshape the silhouette. There is a heightened awareness of our own ability to construct gender, which appears in objects throughout the collection. Other trans people have donated objects that reflect the opposite—there is a whole section in the exhibition of make-up and beauty products. What is clear is that there is no right or wrong in the representation of gender—there is a choice, a diversity and an ability to both self-shape and self-critique. That’s what’s important about this exhibition.
Do you feel like the increased popularity of gender-fluid fashion is linked to raising awareness of trans people?
Fashion has always reflected the society in which it was produced and consumed—this is why it is increasingly popular in museums and is now attracting such huge numbers to blockbuster exhibitions. People can relate to it and understand that it holds social resonance. Fashion also has a history of being surrounded by media hysteria or hype when it breaks its own gender rules (think of the 1966 fashion photography of Helmut Newton depicting a woman in Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking” tuxedo next to a completely naked model in a re-take on heterosexual normativity). This is precisely what is happening now—the fashion industry and cutting-edge designers are reflecting the current social shift in gender awareness. But can the industry cope? Will we see the debunking of men’s and women’s fashion weeks? Will department stores like Selfridges make permanent shifts in their visual merchandising with their pop-up store Agender (we are showing the campaign featuring trans model Hari Nef in the exhibition alongside Munroe Bergdorf’s campaign for Uniqlo), or will it remain a trendy flash in the pan—permanently “popped down”?
You commented that fashion designers can play a huge part in challenging the “constraints of gender stereotypes perpetuated by the industry”. Do you think the majority of the fashion industry is slowing down the process of general acceptance of transpeople? What could they be doing differently to help?
Fashion reinforces the idea of gender binaries, and is slowing down gender equality for all people. There was absolute hysteria surrounding women in trousers in the mid-nineteenth century, and the same dress code restrictions are still applicable to men. J.W.Anderson’s extraordinarily beautiful designs break fashion’s gender boundaries, but in reality, this has little to no effect on men buying ready-to-wear from high street stores. People should be afforded the freedom to choose to shop where they want, how they want, and increasingly, we see that they do this anyway. But the distinction in the retail world that physically separates men from women, that won’t allow us to share changing rooms, that directs us to shop on different floors—all these commercial restrictions absolutely reinforce the idea that male and female identities are distinct and predetermined by biology. This hits trans women and non-binary people hardest—the guilt and fear that needs to be overcome to even go shopping is a reality for anyone who appears not to ‘pass’. Transphobia is still alive and well—if not fostered—amongst staff and other shoppers alike.
In the exhibition a young trans boy in his early teens has donated the first pair of boxer shorts his mother bought him. He calls them ‘tragic’ and recalls that he couldn’t wait to build up the confidence to go and buy a pair that he chose for himself. Can you imagine being scared to buy your own clothes? From catwalk shows to shop windows, the fashion world could be instrumental in fostering social change by breaking down the distinction between men’s and women’s wear.
What have you learnt from curating Museum of Transology?
The power of community led exhibitions to provide cohesion amongst those they represent, and to deliver accessible, emotive and groundbreaking narratives by affording a space for real voices to tell their own truths. What museums need is less top-down curation, and more creative community engagement and representation.