Representing the creative future

Embodying Universal Bodies: Transgender

A new first-year project on the Parsons MFA course tackles societal issues and seeks positive change through fashion design

Now in its ninth year, MFA Fashion Design & Society at Parsons is a leading course for emerging designers, helmed by fashion stalwarts Shelley Fox and Joffrey Moolhuizen (JOFF). This year, the first-year students took on a new challenge, intended to push the progressive, multidisciplinary approach of the course further. ‘Embodying Universal Bodies’ put a new spin on the ‘Personal Identity’ project that normally sees students examining their own place in the world. You can read about the motivation and meaning behind the project here

The class of 17 was divided into four groups, addressing the ageing, transgender, plus size and disabled communities. They then had to find a muse from their given community, and work with them to fill the voids left by other fashion designers’ privileges. This is what went down in the Transgender project: You Are My Safe Space.

The muses: Mishka Amethyst (she/her) and Grace Insogna (they/them)

The design team: Cole Durkee, Weiran Nie, Niamh Galea, Ruihan Duan

MISHKA AMETHYST: “I’m 15 months into my transition. I have a better understanding of how I want to express myself to the public now, but buying clothes is a difficult experience. Shopping is still very gendered and a lot of clothes fit me awkwardly because they aren’t constructed to work against dysphoria or fit a body that is transitioning. This project addressed both of those issues, as the designers spent time learning about our choices of dress and why we make those choices. For example, I usually stay away from garments that emphasise my crotch because I don’t like dresses that create a bump where my penis rests. I don’t normally tuck, but garments that emphasise my crotch give me no choice, which create dysphoria for me. I love the corset Niamh made because it emphasises my natural breasts and hips, while smoothing my crotch line.”

MISHKA AMETHYST: “I never imagined that I’d be part of a project that centered around my relationship with Grace and the relationship that our bodies have with fashion and each other. It’s unfortunate that the wider fashion industry isn’t really trying to adapt to the queer body. I think it’s important for other designers to ask themselves why they limit themselves and exclude bodies that we don’t normally see on runways. Designing for limited sizes is lazy. Grace and I were able to interchangeably wear the pieces from this project without any difficulties; that was a crucial part of the designs.”

NIAMH GALEA: The transgender community face enormous challenges in getting dressed every day. There is a tension between dressing in a way that accurately represents your identity and gender expression and also negotiating public spaces, where dressing as you truly feel might jeopardise your emotional, physical or financial safety. I realised that the menswear and womenswear categories are inherently discriminatory; this binary explicitly describes who certain garment, ‘fit’ and this totally neglects the trans community, whose needs are far more nuanced than that.”

NIAMH GALEA: One of the greatest failures of fashion education is the total acceptance of designing for a singular ‘sample size’ body. Mechanisms like lace ups, drawcords and stretch garments are useful in fitting different bodies in different ways. Corsets emerged as a really useful garment type for trans people, as they can really transform a silhouette. In this project, the corset acts as a soft ‘binding’ device to flatten the chest and cinch the waist, to give a stereotypically feminine hourglass form.”

WEIRAN NIE: “Grace and Mishka are a lovely transgender couple, so we focused on the emotional relationship between them. What a person wears reflects their emotional world, so it is really important for people to be able to dress in a way that they can self-recognise.”

COLE DURKEE: “You can push the limits of design so much further when you consider the different design needs of a wider range of bodies. If you limit yourself to a particular body type, you limit the progress of design. Grace and Mishka, helped me learn more about embracing gender as a journey and to think critically about how it is constructed by society. We live in the real world with real people that aren’t all the standard sample sizes and they want to feel sexy in hot clothes too!”