Performance Duo Dark Matter: ‘If We Wear Dresses to the Train, that Walk Becomes a March’


Performance Duo Dark Matter: ‘If We Wear Dresses to the Train, that Walk Becomes a March’

(Alok) Top: Christina Economou, Skirt: Adam Selman, Necklace: Cara Croninger (Janani) Top & Shorts: Ji Oh
Top & Shorts: Ji Oh
Top: Christina Economou, Skirt: Adam Selman, Necklace: Cara Croninger

Photography: Kohl Murdock
Styling: Keesean Moore
Makeup: Ralph Siciliano

Fashion today is desperately grasping at straws for social clout, as mainstream players launch genderless collections one-by-one to target the disenfranchised and profit off the marketability of visibly addressing marginalization. This, of course, is a transparent, surface level pursuit, oft activated by hungry outsiders in search of a quick and pretty penny at the expense of those actually faced with oppression. As the industry continues slipping down the buzzing genderless black hole, we’re left wondering if fashion is the answer to real social change or instead a magnification into more deep-seeded issues.

Performance activist duo Dark Matter, who both identify as non-binary, grapple with this conversation in their original fashion-centric zine, ctrl/alt/gender, highlighting how gender is not dependent on clothing, but “something far more complex.” Captured at the Ace Hotel, collaborators Alok and Janani pulled together a dynamic wardrobe to assert a more fluid realization of genderless dress—wardrobe that transcends the binary and embodies the “bizarre, peculiar, childlike, alien possibilities of transgressive fashion.” In lieu of their exciting project, we caught up with the touring poets on set to dive deeper into this whirlwind of a discussion.

Zara was recently in the news for launching an “ungendered” clothing line. What was your reaction to this? 

We were literally raging about that. It was so bad, so boring. Why do people think genderless clothing has to look like that? I love sweatpants, but if you’re doing a fashion line and pretending to be doing something innovative, you can’t just make sweatpants and say, ‘We’re doing edgy, genderless clothing.’ Why do we think that a post-gender society is this weird, warehouse, grey, white, dystopian future? As if a post-gender society would not be tons of fun? It feels like every time I see a post-gender line, it’s funeral wear.

Why do you think that is? 

People are so fixated on gender binarism that they actually think that its loss will be a tragedy and not a triumph. Actually, it’ll have more creativity, expression and potentiality for fabric, color, texture and cut, rather than uniformity. The irony is that gender is the ultimate uniform—an institutionalized uniform that’s given to ‘boys’ and ‘girls,’ and that actually the rejection of gender in fashion should be a rejection of the idea of uniformity. A lot of the problem is that fashion is still trapped in this logic of uniformities.

Do you think it’s possible to create a true genderless line? 

A true genderless line would require creating a genderless society. The pursuit of having genderless fashion has to be a continual journey and process like any other process of abolition. How can we abolish gender in fashion when gender is upheld by prisons, police, borders, schools and any other institution outside of it? It’s a continual journey and there’s no one way to do it, but we know the ways you don’t do it. What’s been frustrating is the people who’re starting those conversations are always dismissed as experimental, excessive or theatrical. Actually, the fringes is often where the most important contributions to art, culture and politics come from. And then people at the top will take that, like white pop stars and film makers.

Why do you think the fashion industry, in particular, is obsessed with gender?

People are catching wind of the idea that there’s a certain type of marketability to trans and gender non-conforming aesthetics. To be honest, they probably want in, but the creators of the Zara ungendered line are often people who have few relationships to the actual cultural innovators in trans fashion. The clothes would look amazing if they were hiring queer people who’re doing thoughtful, historic work. Gender nonconformity is actually quite old. The fashion industry gets fixated on trying to do new things, now gender, but this is part of a long history; it’s not innovative or edgy.

NYFW2016-DarkMatter-1252(Alok) Jacket, Jumpsuit & Boots: Acne Studios, Necklace: Cara Croninger (Janani) Top: Wes Gordon, Dress: Preen, Coat: Breelayne, Shoes: Berenik

Do you think fashion’s interest is coming from a genuine place? 

There’s a genuine, sincere desire for people to move beyond gender, they just don’t know how because they keep looking up rather than down. When non-trans people discover gender non-conformity, it becomes decontextualized from the actual bodies and cultural work of trans people. We just want to shake them and be like, ‘Hello, we have the answers.’ All these moral crises and conundrums you’re experiencing are things we know how to figure out. Violence against trans people is not on us, every institution teaches us it’s our fault we have dysphoria, but it’s actually because all of non-trans society has projected its anxieties on us, so we have to carry the burden of all of their insecurities about their own genders. That’s what we see in these genderless fashion lines: people all have insecurities about their own gender. They’re trying to grapple with moving beyond something that’s actually been really toxic for them, but they don’t know how to do it, and the reason they don’t know how to do it is because they’re not involving trans people in the conversation.

Is there anything good coming from this? 

We hope it offers more opportunities for queer, trans and gender-nonconforming designers, particularly people of color, to get paid for their creative work. Now there’s a new cultural space for what looks like visibility from campaigns, like Jaden Smith’s, but people are still confused as to what I’m doing when I walk down the street. There’s a sense of acknowledgment now, and it’s frustrating that acknowledgment has to come from the top versus something from trans activists who have been here.

Visibility, especially when it’s controlled by mainstream media, has proven to be unproductive. 

As organizers, we’re going to use this moment to actually organize. It’s been really productive to say, ‘Oh look, so-and-so just cast this person. What does it make you feel to see this image? What anxieties are you having about it?’ That sparks a conversation that trans-activist organizers can use to teach people about the history of gender and how people get policed by it. If anything, media gives us is a launch pad with which to do real, systematic change. It’s concerning when we mistake media and fashion representation as the end goal. Yeah, it’s cool that there was a genderless line, but that’s not the end—that’s just the beginning, and what fashion has always been is this provocation that allows us to actually talk through and work through bigger ideas.

NYFW2016-DarkMatter-1500(Alok) Top: Christina Economou, Skirt: Adam Selman, Necklace: Cara Croninger (Janani) Top & Shorts: Ji Oh

You’ve spoken before about how gender in fashion spawned from Colonialism. Let’s talk about that. 

One of the ways Colonialism was justified in many parts of the world was largely white, European colonizers seeing gender systems that were different from their own. Often that was manifested through dress—sometimes literal dresses. They used this to call people savage and uncivilized, and so the practice of Colonialism was a way of taming, civilizing and forcibly assimilating people into a particular gender system that was based on a set of, at the time, white, Victorian beauty and gender norms.

So this contemporary genderless movement is really just reflecting on pre-Colonial times. 

De-gendering fashion is not actually about moving toward the future, it’s about remembering a distant past. It’s frustrating when Western capitalism is able to take things that Indigenous people across the world have been doing forever, and were actually attacked and criminalized for, and then make it into a sexy aesthetic. People are like, ‘Wow, you’re cutting edge.’ No, the most ‘cutting edge’ people were literally put in harms way because of it. It’s not bad that we’re doing gender non-conforming fashion, but we need to really challenge the linear narrative we’re drawing that this is new, and actually be like no, de-gendering fashion is necessary precisely because it wasn’t gendered to begin with.

Why do people give so much weight to specific clothing styles as being associated with one gender or the other? 

It has everything to do with transmisogyny. When cisgender women wear pants, people aren’t like, ‘Wow is that some theatrical thing?’ In the transmisogynist’s world we live in, if people who the world regards as being ‘male’ dare express any type of femininity, it has to be because we are dressing up for something. Be it a cultural event, a performance, because we’re drag performers, a halloween costume, our genders are always considered costumes or because in a patriarchal, transmisogynist society, femininity is always constructed as excess, and the default body is always masculine.

Do you believe fashion is political? 

The dismissal of fashion from the political world is really frustrating and misogynistic, because for a lot of trans women and trans people, fashion is the site at which we started to do our political work. Now, if we wear dresses to the train, that walk becomes a march. Everyone feels some sort of way. Everyone’s glaring, staring, taking photos, touching, prodding, and there’s politics going on there. To think that aesthetics are not involved in politics is really wrong.

NYFW2016-DarkMatter-1259(Alok) Jacket, Jumpsuit & Boots: Acne Studios, Necklace: Cara Croninger (Janani) Top: Wes Gordon, Dress: Preen, Coat: Breelayne, Shoes: Berenik

Safety is rarely discussed as a pressing issue in this media frenzy surrounding of genderless fashion. 

Both of us think really seriously about safety, because we know that what’s permissible for us to wear in an ‘art’ context—on a stage where people are okay with gender nonconformity—is very different than the street. Sometimes people will run into us in the city and be like, ‘Are you Dark Matter?’ And when we say yes, they’ll be like, ‘Oh I thought you’d dress more colorfully.’ It’s frustrating because we don’t exist in world yet where we can wear whatever we want. People don’t have consent—they don’t own their own bodies and presentations in this world. Every time we go into the public, we have to literally be ready for an assault, and people’s assumptions around our entire existence. Yes, gender nonconformity is important in fashion and we need to push boundaries, but we also need to have real conversations about safety.

There are key figures fashion loves to focus on, so it’s easy to lose sight of reality. 

It’s become very individualized and we end up celebrating people who’re transgressing gender, without asking real questions about money. Who can afford to? Finding women’s clothing, or clothing that fits, takes a lot of money. We don’t talk about that—finding plus-size shoes, getting makeup. Who’s able to hop into a car if you’re getting street-harassed versus who has to stay on the train. Those questions have to be part of our bigger project because otherwise we’ll keep celebrating gender nonconformity divorced from raising real questions about race, class, power and privilege.

What’re your reactions to the all-white casting at Vetements and Balenciaga during Fashion Week? 

We’re really scared about the moment we’re in right now where people are so fixated on representation and visibility. Yes, those critiques are super important, but what happens is lines will incorporate a trans model, a black person, an indigenous person, and they’re like, ‘The job is done.’ That’s tokenism and multiculturalism, as if that at all addresses structural concerns. We need there to be higher payment for trans models and black models; we need the best agents to be backing and giving resources to the most disenfranchised people; we need to give way more opportunities, structurally, to even be able to consider pursuing a career in fashion. There’s so much that needs to be done to actually challenge fashion and media at the roots, that doesn’t get talked about if we focus our conversations on, ‘Wow, so-and-so just appointed so-and-so model.’

Has social media helped this in any way? 

Now, we’re seeing people who’re just doing their daily looks, and are fucking phenomenal—those are the people we look up to, who’re maybe not cast on a runway, but are finding ways to simply put together works of artistry. If we just continue focusing on who’s getting cast, we’re losing those people doing the most interesting work in fashion. Yes, all-white casting is boring and it’s a critique we could make forever, which is like, ‘Lol, how can you think it’s still acceptable in 2016 to have an all-white casting?’ That’s just so basic and boring, it’s not relevant and your aesthetic is tired. The more interesting question is, what does it look like to structurally shift what’s happening in fashion and media in this country?