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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.
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 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
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