Pink for girls, blue for boys. The notion of what is acceptable for men and women is an overarching theme that has become simplified into a rigid gender binarism. Long before we even have a choice, gendered norms are entrenched in our DNA, based on society’s definitions of what is appropriate.
The role of sex and gender has always been a contentious issue, and now more than ever, the appeal of “ungendered” thoughts, the rise of fluidity and the inclusion of unisex lines have come to the forefront of the 21st century.
Gender versus Sex
The inequality that exists between the sexes is a broad and paramount issue and plays a crucial role in everyday society. These gendered notions are everywhere, even written into our dialogue, with expressions like “Be a man” commanding a person to be brave, and “don’t be so girly” warning a person to be less weak or feminine.
This representation of gender can be seen throughout Western history, which has typically created rules to restrict people to dress according to their gender. Culturally, fashion rules have followed the idea of pinker, prettier clothing for girls, and darker, masculine apparel for boys.
Girls who go against this perception of femininity are deemed tomboys for being outdoorsy, or for paying little attention to what they wear. When designers, performers and those in the public eye decide to push the boundaries, it’s usually by interplaying the idea of what “belongs” to each gender and conflating this perception.
History of Gendered Clothing
In modern times, the idea of pants being worn exclusively by men may seem completely archaic, however, prior to the 19th century, society had determined that pants (or trousers) were solely for men.
As an act of defiance, women activists and spies expressed themselves by wearing trousers, an unheard of revolutionary decision, catapulting women like Luisa Capetillo, a formidable labour organiser in Puerto Rico, into the spotlight.
By the following century, traditional gender roles had been blurred by the onset of the war while the predetermined roles of men and women became less defined as women began occupying “male-only” roles while the men went to war.
Fashion pioneers like Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel capitalised on this growing trend by introducing pants into women’s fashion, which coincided with the popularity of the chic bob haircut, an iconic look of World War I and the 1920s.
The Rise of Androgyny
The label androgyny is synonymous with a host of other terms, including the third gender, gender-neutrality, genderless and agender, contributing to an inexhaustible and ever-growing list.
Gendered clothing became increasingly indistinct as the rise of androgynous style gained a foothold after the 1950s. Gender ambiguity in fashion has been largely influenced by politics, especially between the swinging ‘60s and ‘70s, where the women’s liberation movement, the Stonewall Riots and sexual liberation rose to prominence.
This, in turn, is believed to have influenced fashion designers, especially powerhouse Yves Saint Laurent. Le Smoking suit, designed by Laurent in 1966, became an iconic classic, through Helmut Newton’s stylisation of the suit in an erotized and androgynous photo-shoot.
The suit invited controversy for its contradictory approach to femininity, whilst forever revolutionizing women’s fashion. Mick Jagger in the iconic white dress similarly, whilst the presence of androgyny was making waves in women’s fashion, it had a knock-on effect in the male market as well in the 1950s.
The King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley is credited as being the man responsible for bringing androgyny to rock n’ roll, due to his penchant for eye makeup and his effeminate face. However, androgyny in the public eye really took off a decade later.
The Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger cited Elvis Presley’s approach to androgyny as influential and controversially chose to perform in a white “man’s dress” during a concert at Hyde Park in London in 1969.
The dress was designed by Mr. Fish, a British shirt-maker in London who is considered to have a significant influence on the ‘Peacock Revolution’. Jagger’s dress was seen as the epitome of the swinging sixties, thereby influencing a host of performers and celebrities that cropped up after him.
Androgyny in the Mainstream
In the post-counterculture disco era of the 1970s, androgyny entered the mainstream, with Jimi Hendrix’s frequent performances in high heels and blouses and David Bowie’s alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust becoming the symbol of sexual ambiguity.
Other notable influencers in the androgynous scene included John Travolta, Prince, Boy George, Annie Lennox and Grace Jones. Grace Jones is widely believed to have influenced the cross-dressing movement popular in the 1980s, with her distinctive appearance of square-cut, padded clothing, her above-average height and her androgynous and eccentric manner.
Her androgynous appearance, while shocking, was quickly accepted as she became a style icon, paving the way for unisex designers and celebrities to adopt the androgynous look of the 1990s.
Tilda Swinton is another androgynous style icon, which is something she has been able to incorporate into many of her films, while notable designers who favored unisex clothing at the time included Giorgio Armani and Pierre Cardin.
Challenging the idea of Traditional Masculinity
The early 21st century introduced the idea of the metrosexual, a term associated with men (especially those living in an urban, post-industrial area and David Beckham) who spend a significant amount of time and money on grooming and appearance, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
Alongside the rise of the metrosexual, which was influenced by the androgynous movement, the notion of men being traditionally masculine and representative of mannish behavior was greatly challenged with the prominence of actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, whose effeminate face gave rise to the outbreak of “Leo Mania”.
On the music scene, performers like Marilyn Manson and the band Placebo, have become synonymous with rule-bending stage antics, with Manson even appearing genderless on the cover of his album “Mechanical Animals”.
There are a number of androgynous icons in the music, fashion, sporting and modeling industry, who have contributed their own interpretations to style, dressing and what gender means.
Casey Legler, a French former athlete, is known for her androgynous looks and modeling men’s clothing, even penning a powerful article on the topic. Other notable models who walked for the “opposing” gender include Andrej Pejic (now Andreja Pejic) and Rain Dove.
Gender Fluidity in Fashion
Gender-neutral runway shows have also become more popular as veteran-genderless designers like Rick Owens and Rad Hourani have been followed by the likes of Gucci, Prada, and Selfridges, Zara, Nicopanda and Toogood.
Heavyweight designers like Marc Jacobs and Burberry, among others, have included more gender-neutral and androgynous models into their campaigns.
In current times, musicians like Kanye West and Jaden Smith have experimented with gendered constraints by pushing the fashion boundaries, capturing the essence of what genderless fashion is all about- removing restrictions rather than blending all genders into one.
West’s fashion line “House of Pablo” is known for its genderless approach to clothing and his brand of sneakers are popular with all genders. West also experiments with his own genderless style, favouring high-end fashion with sports-luxe, even wearing a leather kilt (a divisive and bold move that demonstrated West’s position as a fashion-contender).
Jaden Smith constantly makes headlines for his gender-fluid approach to dressing, playing with proportions and silhouettes and even wearing skirts on multiple occasions. Despite his fondness for pseudo-philosophy, his attitude to style and how it should not be restricted by genders is refreshing as a voice of the next generation, hopefully contributing to a significant change in the way gender is viewed, considered and understood.
In this day and age, fashion has moved far beyond the stereotypical looks of men and women. Considering fashion is an ever-changing branch of art, it’s no surprise that this gender-neutral path has been taken.
Whether it fits into your personal style or not, this trend won’t be over quickly, and will most likely soon be a mainstay. Appreciating the evolution is what fashion is all about.