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Defying Gender norms... one dress at a time

Collage of images from Fragile Masculinity's graphics

In his upcoming book, Fragile Masculinity, photographer Matthew Dean Stewart calls the nature of gender and what it means to be a man into question… one dress at a time.

Fragile Masculinity features the photos of thirty guys from five different cities, each wearing a simple dress in one photo and completely nude in another.

According to Matthew, “This book is designed to show how this simple piece of clothing falls on a male body. Not in an elevated sense of drag or impersonating a woman, but how a stripped down male body looks wearing a dress. Paired with the exact same photo of them nude to celebrate bodies and attempting to break societal gender normalities [sic]. Finding the beauty in all types of men with all types of bodies.”

Recently, I spoke with Matthew to learn a bit more about the project.

Here’s what he had to say:

BW: I was wondering if you could tell me about what inspired you to do this project, and, along with that, how you decided to take this approach.

MDS: Sure! I’m not really like a series type photographer. I don’t do projects necessarily; I usually like to work in the moment. But I knew that I always wanted to do some type of a book. I always wanted to do a coffee table book, but then I was thinking that maybe I should do something smaller. I could do some zines or something small but still tangible that I could hold, and get other people to hold. Instagram is cool; I’m glad it’s there. My website is great; I’m glad it’s there. But to actually hold something is a different experience.

To do that, I was throwing around some ideas, and this one kind of just came to me one day. It comes from challenging what society expects of us—not just necessarily men (straight, gay, or anywhere in between) but us as humans. We’re so involved in the media and movies and books that we’re forced to think that we’re supposed to be something because of those expectations, because of what we see and how we were raised. Being in 2018, it’s available all the time, and it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re somebody who is not secure in the way that you want to present yourself, or if how you want to live your life is not falling into the categories that are predetermined for you by our predecessors and our families.

Gender has always been, for me, especially when it comes to clothing, kind of like “well why can’t I wear this,” or “why am I supposed to wear this,” or “why can’t this person wear this?” Why can’t we just do what it is that we want to do? What is it about this piece of clothing that determines it is supposed to be for who somebody says its supposed to be for?

BW: As you were working on this project, was there anything along the way that surprised you or was just really unexpected?

MDS:  I think, overall, because I’m choosing to shoot people nude as well, the comfort of people wanting to do that and being open to that was definitely surprising.

Being nude, in general, is a very vulnerable thing. There are ways of shooting that where things could be hidden or out of focus, but the way I’m choosing to do this was just standing right there, totally vulnerable, and direct. That’s something that I would have a hard time doing, personally, but I found with a lot of people that they were super comfortable doing it. That definitely surprised me—their willingness to do it, and to want to be a part of something because they believed in it.

BW: Do you have an ideal end goal for the book? What do you hope people get out of reading it?

MDS: This is something that I’m putting out there for not necessarily the progressive people, who are more open and willing to accept everyone around them; it’s also not necessarily for the people who are at the complete opposite end of that and closed off to everything.

It’s about anyone that’s willing to maybe take a step back and hear a different perspective.

If I can shift one person’s perspective, I would think that I’ve done something. Obviously, I would love for that to be on a larger scale, and I hope that people will listen, but if I can shift something in maybe a parent with an LGBTQ child, and they can understand a little bit better how someone can identify and choose to dress, then they could let go of some of their expectations for how their kid should be.

BW: There’s also a collaborative aspect of Fragile Masculinity. Along with your own photography, you’ve also invited other people to contribute pieces centering around this topic of fragile masculinity. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about what that experience was like, and if there were any challenges to it.

MDS: I love collaborating with people in general. It’s just something I like doing. And over the last year and a half, I started following a bunch of illustrators on Instagram, and I’ve met some wonderful people doing that. I actually have an enamel pin company called Pins by Dean, and I’ve collaborated with artists on there and we’ve made pins of their stuff. Through that experience, I knew that, in doing this, I didn’t want it to just be my voice. Obviously, it’s a book of my work—that’s primarily what it is and what I wanted to do—but I wanted to throw other voices in there too. I didn’t want to just push my own agenda or how I feel, but to have people throw their stuff into it as well.

I had illustrators, poets, creative writers–– the only prompt that I gave them was the idea of fragile masculinity and what that means to them. I didn’t want to push them in any way or control what they were doing. I wanted to see what they were going to give me.

Everything that everybody gave me was spot on and wonderful, and went really well together.

We’re not just on this planet to be here for ourselves, and if you have knowledge or if you have something that could help someone out, you should help them out. Sometimes I feel like we’re so competitive that we keep things a secret as opposed to sharing it, especially in like an Instagram situation where you’re trying to get followers, and want people to focus on you and buy what you’re selling, or whatever it is. I love pushing people’s profiles and supporting other people that maybe want to get their stuff out there. [Collaborating] was a good way for me to include those people as well.

BW: Since it sounds like the collaboration aspect worked really well, I’m wondering… was there anything along the way that you were fearful about or that you found unnerving?

MDS: When I do something, I tend to want to do it right away. I don’t like to plan things out. It’s very hard for me to hold onto something, too. In doing this, I knew that I was going to be traveling. I didn’t know that I was going to be traveling as much as I did, but a lot of it was time management and making sure that I had enough people and enough diversity in everything that I was trying to do.

One of the hard things about trying to present something like this is that there’s no answer sheet in the back of your book, no checklist of things that you’re supposed to do. So putting this out there and trying to represent as much as I could without offending anybody is always a fear. There’s always going to be somebody that has an opinion of course, we’re all opinionated people, but just trying to put something out there that many different people could identify with.

BW: What has the support been like for this project?

MDS: There’s been a lot of wonderful, wonderful support. I’ve already exceeded my goal by over $1000, and there’s still 11 days left, and the amount of messages and support that I’ve gotten from people has been wonderful.

BW: That’s great! As a follow up to that, if someone else sees this article, learns about your project, and wants to support it, what would you recommend that they do?

MDS: Well, the Kickstarter ends at midnight on the 15th. After that, I will sell Fragile Masculinity on my website, which is matthewdeanstewart.com. I don’t have a release date for it just yet, but it should be sometime in March or April.

It will be a limited edition run. I’m only going to make so many copies, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. But, I’ll be promoting it through my social media, so that’s probably the best way to stay up to date.

BW: To wrap things up, I had a final question to throw out there: If you had to identify a single moment from working on this project, what would you say has stood out to you as your favorite part of this entire process?

MDS: I’m going to put this in two things. Number one, the luxury of what I’ve been able to do in the last year is shoot with a lot of different people and meet so many different types of people from all over the country. That’s been one of the most positive things for me—broadening that community of people who want to be in front of the camera and want to support this project. I’ve met some amazing friends through this process as well.

It’s scary putting out anything of your own work, and selling yourself. Doing that is a hard thing to do sometimes.

I wasn’t initially going to do a Kickstarter. I was just going to fund this myself. I had never done crowdfunding, and my opinion with crowdfunding is that you can only do it once. And the thing with Kickstarter is that it is all or nothing, so if I had made $4995, and nobody gave that last $5, I wouldn’t have made my money. And so to launch this and to have the support that I did and make my goal was amazing. With one of the incentives being the book itself, I’ve already sold 65 copies, which is more than I was planning on printing in the first place.

It was a wonderful gauge of what I’m able to do.

Self-Himprovement would like to thank Matthew Dean Stewart for taking the time to do an interview. To thank him, Self-Himprovement readers, be sure to check out his website and social media (linked above) and support his kickstarter if you're in a position to do so!


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