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Opinion: Why Genderless Fashion Is Bad For Women

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 ‘androgynous 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 genderless fashion is bad for women, in my opinion.

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.

Why Genderless Fashion Is Bad For Women

Sartorially Sexy

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’. And that’s what they were aiming for – to be taken seriously, they had to hide the exaggerated, sexual form that the bustle and corset offered. We women are fully aware of the difference between dressing to seduce and dressing for business or everyday wear, and we can use those clothing cues to our advantage.

Indeed, women who don’t wish to call much male attention 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 look dope during choreographies. The hip hop look – puffa jackets, trainers and tracksuits – has 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 Genderless Fashion Is Bad For Women

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. By dressing up as women, these men are deliberately demeaning themselves for a laugh – which carries the nasty notion that to be a woman is ‘lesser’ than to be a man.

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, over-the-top satire on what’s perceived as ‘feminine’ or womanly, and some feminists have argued that this interpretation is actually really misogynistic. If you ask me, it’s (female) cultural appropriation at its worst.

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 by wearing ‘our’ clothing, they’re infringing on yet another aspect of femaleness. Since even gay and queer men outearn women – and now, even most straight men –  it could be strongly argued that by culturally appropriating what is currently perceived as ‘feminine’, queer men are on their way to erasing ‘female culture’ altogether.

One example is how Jaden Smith displaced a female model to star in a Louis Vuitton Women’s Wear campaign in 2016, below. It may not seem like a big deal, but when you consider modelling is one of the only industries dominated by women, having males star in campaigns for female clothing does feel like a bit of a threat.

Why Genderless Fashion Is Bad For Women

Why Genderless Fashion Is Bad For Women

The way genderless 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 queer sexual expression whilst completely failing to address the elephant in the room – that is, the pervasive socio-economic power gap between men and women that makes it almost shameful for straight, powerful 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, usually in an attempt to gain more power in the workplace. And this goes deeper, too – it could be argued that for women to ‘make it’ in our society, they need to tone down anything associated with femininity: think, nurturing, kindness, non-violence and intuition and ramp up ‘masculine’ traits like competition, logic and cunning.

In short, rather than laud modern androgynous clothing as being ‘cool’ and ‘progressive’, I’d say it’s the exact opposite -it’s full on anti-woman, negating the power of the feminine and acting as a means of draining women of our power by having (queer) males culturally appropriate what is ours.

Main image: Karen Glass

Chere Di Boscio

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    Joe
    Jun 14, 2018 at 6:58 am

    I think this article seeks to politicise an otherwise passive non-issue. The notion of genderless fashion has really been part of the avant-garde movement, particularly in the Japanese domain for decades. If we look in-depth at 90s adopters of this movement (namely Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo), the initial intentions were to create functional clothing that was intended to be draped perfectly over the human form. This theory has filtered into modern society, and hence we’ve seen the emergence of creatives such as Rick Owens and Alessandro Michele who look to integrate a single idea of design and style across all people. I think that at an even deeper level, designers such as Thom Browne are looking to blur the gender lines of clothing in order to produce the best-looking clothes for the individual, that being, clothes that purely fit best, and designs that can be worn by both men and women. While not based in fact, I put this anecdotal evidence forward. I have worn women’s pants for years now. I find that they fit my form best, and I feel more comfortable when wearing them. I wonder at what point in this decision to dress in female clothing I have attempted to fortify a power dynamic, or at a more macro level, how any male who chooses to wear female clothing is contributing to the perpetuation of a misogynistic environment as your article would suggest? I take great issue with this article, as I feel that this is the kind of literature perpetuates the underlying infrastructure that supports social inequality, and more specifically to your political inclination, the continuation of misogyny. This article attempts to establish identity politics as a legitimate and viable reasoning as to why androgynous fashion is somehow anti-women. I’d suggest that androgynous fashion does not, rather, it seeks to remove social norms that act as the main divides between genders; the social constructed differences between men’s and women’s clothing. I struggle to see how the production of gender neutral clothing in high fashion is anti-women. I also take issue with that fact that you have attempted to simplify the reasons for individual’s choices in wearing clothes designed for the other sex into two distinct camps, and present an almost dystopically conservative society where those who choose to will be made social outcasts, and ridiculed. Seldom do I experience backlash for the way that I dress, and I think that our society is more accepting that you care to admit. So on a purely anecdotal basis, I’d care to refute your argument. As for the perpetuation of a gender pay gap as a result of clothing choices, I’d suggest that the argument is flawed in two ways. First, the statistic commonly used to support the gender pay gap is misused. It is illegal for women to get paid less, and in purely economic terms, if women could get paid less, wouldn’t businesses only pay women? Isn’t that why manufacturing has been moved to developing economies, because employees can get paid less? I’d suggest that the statistic purely reflects that on average, men often get into higher paying jobs, due to various sociological reasons (which while I’m the beneficiary of, I do not support or endorse), not because of women are getting paid less for the exact same work as a man. I feel that the argument of such statistic could go on forever without any resolution, so I’ll move to my second issue, that women don’t inherently need to dress or act more masculine to achieve success in a business setting. This argument is complete lunacy. While yes, some conservative men don’t endorse women in executive positions, I don’t believe that they will be swayed by the way a person dresses or act. Instead, their issue is with the connotations attached to the gender. Often times, the choose to support their beliefs with statements such as women will take maternity leave, resulting in a cost centre for the business (I’m Australian, so I do apologise for spelling centre differently), or that women may work fewer hours to spend time with their family. While I do not support such statements, I don’t feel that androgynous fashion somehow quashes an individual’s sense of femininity. Dressing and acting more masculine is purely a choice, as it is a male’s choice to appear more effeminate. Its most macro level, I think that the vast majority people really don’t give a shit about other’s decisions, and it’s only the minority that really takes issue. We have freedom of speech, and expression, so I accept that your opinion is that androgynous fashion is anti-women, but I don’t have to agree, so I respectfully place forward my argument. I hope this comment is not taken as a personal attack, but instead, adds to the political discussion so that one day we can all live in an accepting and open society where all individuals feel valued.

  • Reply
    Tavie
    Sep 16, 2018 at 5:42 am

    The writer makes a valid how men degrade themselves by dressing like women for comedic purposes, as well as associating men’s clothing with power. Yes, we should be able to see traditionally femine silouhettes as equally powerful. However, the article lost me when it crowbarred-in unnecessary counter arguments for potential criticisms, as well as by using dated examples from hip hop culture. It reads like it wants to be the contrarian for the sake of hating on a popular shift in mainstream fashion. For example, this logic makes no sense:

    1) Adrogyny usually means women dressing like men and not vice versa.
    2) Except Jaden Smith and in queer culture (No names are named, but I assume Jonathan Van Ness and James Charles would be examples)
    3) But they can’t do it because it’s appropriating female culture and taking away jobs for women.

    So what are men supposed to do if they want to wear women’s clothing? Did Young Thug also take away a woman’s modelling job by appearing in a Calvin Klein campaign? Should Kanye West stay away from the women’s racks while shopping for his Coachella shirt? Does Andre 3000 just steal wigs off old ladies?!

    This writer does an okay job describing the history of fashion’s gender binary, but also seems to want to keep that binary rather than applaud the men who look fly as hell in clothing that’s traditionally associated with women. The reason being the gender pay gap? Feminism isn’t just about empowering women, it’s about equality (e.g. paternity leave is a feminist issue). How are we going to eliminate the idea dressing as women is degrading if we’re also admonishing the men who do it?

    • Reply
      Chere
      Sep 16, 2018 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks for your comments Tavie! I think the main point here is that men are appropriating female culture, leaving nothing unique for us, no? The whole ‘genderless’ thing seems especially focused on killing the goddess/feminine – as the article says, when men appropriate ‘female’ garb, it’s a piss take usually, or they just take it over completely. Why? Because patriarchy is still so strong.

      • Reply
        Tavie
        Sep 17, 2018 at 7:03 am

        Yes, I mentioned that point at the very beginning of my comment, but what about men (who I mentioned) who don’t do it as a piss take? Isn’t it celebrating “the goddess” and embracing femininity?

        • Reply
          Chere
          Sep 17, 2018 at 4:10 pm

          Possibly. But I reckon it will end up being more appropriation than celebration due to the imbalance of power between the sexes.

  • Reply
    Esther
    Oct 9, 2018 at 7:26 am

    I think this is an excellent analysis of current pro-androgynous culture. I often look at the genderless collections and (as a woman) I feel how un-feminine they are, like the very nature of womanliness is stripped out of them. When I was looking at the photos encapsulating this idea of a bland single gender, it suddenly hit me how much we will lose if we erase our genders – it doesn’t seem like there’s a gain. I love the colour and life and beauty that femininity brings to the world stage, and some of the most powerful women I know live within their ‘feminine’ so deeply, and their power stems from their very femininity. The things you listed – nurturance, kindness etc – are the things they express that one would assume would weaken them, but in reality they have others around them eating out of the palm of their hands. Femininity is powerful in its essence, we don’t need to lose femininity or gain masculinity. Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking analysis, I respect your views.

    • Reply
      Chere
      Oct 10, 2018 at 3:09 am

      Thanks so much for this very thoughtful comment, Esther!

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