By Annie Bourne
Androgynous fashion is setting the fashion world abuzz. From the likes of gender fluid celebs like Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus and Jaden Smith to an increasing number of unisex collections as shown from fashion houses ranging from Zara and H&M to Craig Green and Rick Owens, genderless fashion has proven to be such a big trend, even bigger labels like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Margiela have jumped on the bandwagon, combining mens and womenswear collections, as well as featuring men or women in the opposite gender’s runway shows.
While this may feel fresh – even revolutionary – right now, the fact is that the notion of ‘genderless fashion’ has been around for decades, if not centuries, often for practical or political purposes. Which is cool. But when today’s genderless trend is put in context, it seems to completely fail to address one major issue: misogyny. Let me explain why.
Heels and Steals
First, let’s look at a bit of fashion history, rolling it back to when super macho soldiers and gladiators wore what are essentially mini-skirts, whilst women donned longer togas. In the 16th century, diplomatic missions from Persia popularized heels for men in the Western world, after European nobles noted and admired the Persians’ forked soles, used by the army to stand more steadily in their stirrups.
Eventually, heels filtered down into women’s closets when we went through a ‘wear all things man’ phase in later decades. But here’s the thing: once heels became common attire for all, differences began to appear in shape and design so as to ensure gender distinctions. It seemed men wanted to retain a masculine look, and weren’t too pleased the ladies were co-opting their style. Eventually, men dropped heels from their wardrobes around the 1700s as the association with all things feminine became too strong.
When women sought equality in the days of the suffragettes, the first thing they started to wear were trousers. In the late 1800s, for a woman to don a pair of pants was a major scandal, and it made a major statement. It said: ‘I’m sick of wearing these bloody ridiculous corseted dresses and want the freedom of movement and political power that men have.’
Clothing fulfils three basic functions: covering nudity; keeping us warm; and denoting social context and status. Rare is the man willing to degrade himself down to the status of that of a ‘lady’, but it wasn’t uncommon for women to want to dress like men in order to be taken more seriously, and that’s arguably still true today.
A suit is meant to convey power. Seriousness. Business. And that’s exactly what the suffragettes were aiming for when they ditched the bustle for the trouser. They were loose, they were formless, and you can rest assured that perceptions at the time were ‘lady looks like a dude’. But that’s not always the case when women adopt menswear. For example, when Yves Saint Laurent introduced his tuxedo for women, Helmut Newton’s photography of it flirted with erotic visuals of androgyny, but mainly made it look super sexy – breasts were practically on display, no shirt was worn beneath the jacket, and the cut was close to the body. It was a decidedly feminine take on an item perceived as masculine. So…what does that say about the wearer?
This is another important point. When garments are made deliberately sexual, like transparent blouses or super short skirts, who’s empowered – the wearer, or the viewer? This is one constant debate between Muslim women and Western women. The former feel empowered for not having to show off sexually; for not being perceived as sex objects when they walk down the street. The latter complain that sexually is empowering. It’s an interesting debate, but one I don’t have time to get into here.
What I’m aiming to point out is that YSL’s tux, as shot by Newton, was clearly not genderless; it was sexual and feminine. So when we talk about genderless fashion, are we also talking about ‘sexless’ fashion? I’d argue that it may be ‘sexless’, in the sense that it’s not suggestive, but it’s not ungendered necessarily. For example, women may choose clothing that’s thought to be more masculine, but that it never makes them unfeminine: blazers, jeans and suits for women still hold certain distinguishable differences in design, be it tailoring, buttons or other factors.
But that’s not always the case. Women have been strolling down the streets in seriously ungendered boyfriend jeans, oversized masculine blazers and hoodies for years – female hip hop dancers around the world happily put on male sweats as they fit more coolly with the ‘badass’ hip hop aesthetic and looked dope during choreographies. The hip hop look – puffa jackets, trainers and track suits – have been adopted by women in that community with barely a blink. But what if men did a gender swap and started dressing like Nikki Minaj or JLo?
If you’re having a hard time envisioning Kanye in a pair of gold leather hotpants, that may be because it seems ‘genderless’ only goes one way – females in male clothing. Today, just like the suffragettes, women aspire to the semiotics associated with male fashion: namely, power and social status. It doesn’t really work the other way around. And that’s a bit of an issue, to me.
Why Cross Dressing Makes Me Cross
Whilst women breeze easily between gendered clothing according to their mood, the context or the situation, cross dressing men, on the other hand, tend to belong to one of two groups.
The first is comedians. In some places, like America, France, Britain or Italy, dressing up as a woman is seen to be hilarious. Think of films like White Chicks or Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, and laugh. Or better, cry. A real piss take, ha ha. Kind of like dressing up in blackface was, back in the day.
The second is within the LGBTQ community, which itself can be subdivided into two groups: macho looking men who dress up in drag ‘for fun’, and the more gender-fluid men, often in the fashion industry.
For the former, the point of cross dressing isn’t because the look per se is ‘genderless’ – as is the case with the current version of the unisex labels – but precisely because it is attributed to one gender: it’s a rather nasty satire on what’s perceived as ‘feminine’ or womanly, and some feminists have argued that this interpretation is actually really misogynistic.
For the second group, the whole charm for men in this context stems from the flirtatious idea of wearing clothing that visually pertains to the other gender; it’s more a tribute than a dig. It may gain them kudos in the rarified world of fashion or in the LGBTQ community, but it will most certainly not help them attain social currency in most other contexts. In fact, unless they’re the son of someone famous, as in the case of Jaden Smith, it may get the shit kicked out of them. Why? Because misogyny. Because women = less power, less money, and less status. And therein lies the core problem – and cross dressing seems to perpetuate it even further.
Unisex Tights and Human Rights
The way unisex fashion is currently portrayed indicates it has been linked to the equal rights movement, making ‘genderless’ synonymous with a progressive attitude, an ideological twist allowing it have a tangible, visual standpoint (ironically, also socially constructed). Yet when designers and retailers talk about the ‘issues’ behind androgynous fashion, they tend to focus on the freedom of sexual expression whilst completely failing to address the elephant in the room; that is, the socio-economic void between men and women that makes it almost shameful for men to slide over into female garb.
As I mentioned before, genderless fashion is nothing new. But the norm is – and has always been – for women to adopt menswear, often in an attempt to gain more equality. Rather than the coolness of modern adrogynous clothing, I’d say it’s the issue of this inequality that we need to focus on right now.
Still, there’s some room for a little cross dressing fun, right? Here are a few sustainable brands with genderless vibe.
A brand dedicated to ending the ‘tree hugger’ stigma associated with eco fashion, this is a cutting edge brand that is all about ‘memale’ fashion; products made for both males and females, and not separately.
A zero waste label that creates masculine-tailored clothing aimed at women, but suitable for just about anyone, especially denim lovers.
Building collections around art, culture and traditional crafts, Bruta creates great embroidered shirts for everyone.
Bigger, bolder, better urban wear with that hip hop vibe that’s a hit with both – or should I say ‘all’ – genders.
This label’s all about experimentation. Guaranteed to be fun and theatrical.
This emerging design label makes clothing that can be worn back to front, or inside and out, meaning you can get way more than one outfit out of one piece.
Main image: Karen Glass