Dress of 1,000 Tassels
Research Question: How does gender rely on costume for its performance?
Gender, at its point of origin, and through its carnivorous ultimate epoch, has used costume as a signifier of power dynamics. Gender depends on performance for its ideological consequences to have material consequences, and thus costume is the focal feature of the performance being delivered by any given actor. This is true in both simulated space and spaces within reality. Just as in theater, an audience understands a subject based on visual symbology. Both in art and in the material world, people of every gender identity are culturally assigned garments to represent their gender, and subverting this normalized behavior is often viewed as deviant, queer, and dangerous, as it threatens the hegemony of cisheteronormative patriarchy. Costume, as one of the most obvious signifiers of gender on a subject, is crucial for understanding how Western society has defined gender as a binary. It is imperative to confront the intertwined history of gender and costume to display the absurdity of this performance. This is how to understand how one can queer the pre-existing architecture of the oppressive and mythological gender binary capitalism is dependent on our shared belief in.
Defining the words which create the stage for this idea to be enacted and how they are being used in this situation is critical. Defining, first and foremost, gender, is complex. Gender exists in many frameworks and is defined in a diverse array of ways. A more traditional, liberal feminist like Sally Haslanger, a philosopher at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, would define gender as the binary hierarchy between men and women, defined primarily by the suspension of men over women in this hierarchy (patriarchy). Gender is separate from biological sex in this framework because it is more about the performance of roles rather than physical characteristics. Haslanger says of gender: “Gender categories are defined hieratically within a broader complex of oppressive relations; one group (viz., women) is socially positioned as subordinate to the other (viz., men), typically within the context of other forms of economic and social oppression.”1 The work of more conservative feminists like Haslanger is important for addressing the impact of patriarchy on non-men. Men hold themselves over other genders with the maintenance of patriarchy, but the Haslanger definition is erroneous, as it insists that gender is a binary superstructure. Theorists like Vikky Storm properly correct this definition of the power dynamic. Storm’s Anarcho-Marxist and queer take is built on seeing gender as a class system. Looking to non-Western cultures, gender has existed in most if not all, but sometimes in ways that do not utilize the two gender divisions of labor and power that Western patriarchy declared supreme. Gender is always, however, based on arbitrary assignment of reproductive, sexual, and domestic tasks. This creates a system of violence and labor which is perpetuated by coded symbols of gender in people within society. These symbols are performative and cause people to behave within a specific set of acceptable attributes and ideals to properly perform in society.
The second term that needs a critical evaluation is costume. What is costume, both generally and in the context of performance of gender? Costume is an incandescent indicator of character (as Susan Sontag may call it). Costume is the practice of transforming garments into an abstract illustration of specific personal characteristics, either of the wearer or someone the wearer is attempting to emulate. Gender is often defined by costume, both in art and in everyday
life. Masculine-coded clothing is rugged, tactical, or plain, while femininity is defined by ornamentation. This allows for the previously addressed maintenance of the gender class system.
Queerness is a system which subverts gender. Queerness ignores the binary of gender. Queerness is the forced obsolescence of assigned gender identities within patriarchy. The primary vehicle for visual expression of this ideal is costume. When garments are eliminated from their gendered meaning, gender is put into a crisis. This is the crux of queerness. This is seen in artwork such as Lissa Rivera’s photographic practice. Rivera photographs her partner who identifies as nonbinary and who was assigned male at birth in feminine clothes. The images are created with the aesthetics of vintage fashion editorials, a space which was typically cisheteronormative historically. The archive Rivera is looking to for references created the defining qualities of what femininity is visually in the binary system of gender for the field of fashion. This is one example of rejecting the traditionally binary superstructure of gender. The gender that was assigned to the subject is being destroyed as they perform their nonbinary identity and how they perform it. This is part of a wider movement of using queerness to eliminate the violent structure of gender, which had been discussed by Storm.
For the violent class system of gender to be abolished, costume is the tool that must be utilized to queer it. The use of costume that breaks gender and asks for a curtain call on it aids in the revolutionary project of queerness and feminism. Gender is a performance, so it is only through performative acts that it exists. When the absurdity of the performance is abandoned, then it is rendered fictional. Embracing the queer and theatrical approach to costume as an extension of gender is the objective agenda to erase the binary.
1 Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Mar. 2000), 38.