Professor Emanuele Lugli discusses what it’s like to be credited with inspiring a fashion line that blurs the boundaries between sexual and gender binaries

Four questions for Emanuele Lugli
The Stanford art historian discusses what it’s like to be credited with inspiring a fashion line that blurs the boundaries between sexual and gender binaries.
When the fall clothing lines hit the runway at New York Fashion Week last month, they included outfits inspired by Stanford art historian Emanuele Lugli.
The collection by designer Gabriela Hearst drew upon ideas about androgyny from ancient times to the present. Her designs raised a simple but provocative question: What does fashion look like when it is freed from traditional concepts of sexual and gender binaries?
One journalist quipped that Hearst presented enough background material during the show to write a dissertation. Not surprising, since Hearst and her staff received a crash course by Lugli as part of their design process.
“Gabriela was looking for a visual history of androgyny, and so she reached out to me after a recommendation from a colleague,” said Lugli, whose work focuses on gender and politics. “I thus created a mini class for her, something that spanned from Greco-Roman myths to Renaissance hermaphroditism to Susan Stryker’s transgender history in the 20th century.”
These are topics Lugli touches upon in his undergraduate course on Italian art at Stanford, he says, because questions of gender are a critical part of conversations about art and art’s role in life.
“It is very exciting because I think many young people, including many Stanford students, no longer see gender labels as natural and have rejected their politics,” Lugli said. “This refusal leads to original forms of thinking that try to embrace life to the fullest.”
1. How does it feel to be credited with inspiring a fashion line?
It still feels surprising. I just did what I usually do: I am asked to put my knowledge to use and help people analyze an artwork better – that is, more precisely, and in ways that make viewers more aware of their inclinations while deepening their understanding of the artwork’s historical period. To be name checked by so much press was humbling: It meant that my words impacted Gabriela’s creative process more than I thought. To influence artists is not something that happens often in an academic’s life: We are often told to write for other scholars. So to see that my research can get out of academic boundaries to inspire creatives is exhilarating.
2. In what ways do you see your course material reflected in Gabriela’s designs?
The collection is packed with references to what I presented to Gabriela, even if they are difficult to spot for someone who is not versed in art history. Those dresses made of yellow and orange petals, for instance, allude to William Blake’s illustrations of defiant androgynous figures, embraced in lotuses floating against apocalyptic sunsets. For a bag, she reworked the illustrations for a 16th-century treatise that reflects on the fusion between genders. She’s a truly outstanding designer, someone who is attentive to the historical sources but who can also liberate herself from a too-literal reading of them.
3. Is nonbinary representation and expression more accepted in 2022 than it has been historically?
Nonbinary and queer representation is still niche. Take transgender characters: Even the few times they are made visible, they are largely reduced to hyper-sexualized caricatures. Their stories often offer little more than fetishizations of traumas. The movies or TV series that stay clear of all that are few and unpopular.
Gender-neutral expressions are more of an ideal than a possibility for most cultures since their language is so profoundly steeped in a binary system: Indeed, language is the very means by which a particular view of reality, that is politics, reproduces itself. So, any attempt to reshape some linguistic aspects to make them more inclusive is often met with pushback as many do not know how to think outside of language.
4. What’s your favorite piece in the collection?
Too many to list! I love the bold yellow and orange suits, the cardigan embellished with stones – a reference to alchemy, which studied the processes of fusions of the mineral world – and the last look, the double-breasted jacket worn by a fierce and makeup-less Amber Valletta. My favorite, however, is probably that stunning black pleated dress worn by Sherry Shi. The level of intricacy in that dress is delirious and reveals the astonishing level of craftsmanship that goes into these clothes. This collection is not only sustained by an intellectual engagement with the ethics of gender but also by a commitment to material wonder. It is there to amaze, both visually and mentally.
—As told to Ker Than