Gender in fashion is all but neutral
Gender bending. Menaissance. Feminiello. These words have been thrown around in the last couple of seasons. Menswear feels it, womenswear feels it, the high street is definitely feeling it - there’s more space for mens clothing in the Zaras and Topshops of the (western) world and there are less and less boundaries.
They didn’t mean to do it. But the fashion crowd wanted it. Wanted it bad. London’s it duo of young designers Marques’Almeida started out as an edgy denim brand for a girl that’s basically Marta Marques’ sister. But as Opening Ceremony was selling their line like hotcakes, “there were boys and men coming into the store asking for the product” inspired by her younger sister’s look, Marta recalls. Like a drug, they wanted that “t-shirt dress, that came out of an oversize t-shirt, that is unisex”.
What is gender? A social construction, a letter of the alphabet that you are attributed at birth, a cross you put on a form and a twist in your DNA spiral. Colour codes, genetic codes, boundaries and behaviour of and upon our bodies. Prominent gender theorist Judith Butler describes her work for the last three decades as “trying to make room for the complexity of what we are”. And a space has just opened to discuss gender. And in fashion, too.
In all her work since the seminal Gender Trouble (1993), she has been refining the idea that gender is performative, it’s what we do with our bodies, but it’s also history. And power exerted on those bodies. Fashion dresses those bodies, it binds them, and us all, together. Since there’s something going on with gender and clothing - especially in the men’s department - the “fashion as social symptom” motto seems a perfect fit in the last couple of seasons. A kilt, a mini-skirt or a bikini, a man in a dress or a girl in a power suits – these are some potent garments.
In clothing, they say, we haven’t seen such a surge in gender bending fashion since the late sixties and the flower power, LSD fuelled seventies. Transgender is the actress in Orange is the New Black, Time magazine covers and all, and even the omnipresent Kardashians are giving it their stamp of approval, be it through Caitlin Jenner’s very public transition to Kanye West’s skirt wearing ways. The financial crisis has sent more men and women out of their route, stay at home dads or power female CEOs, millennials working in creative areas and spawning the so called “yummy” — the “young urban male” that loves fashion and doesn’t conform to the most strict traditional gender roles or looks.
Menswear is having a moment, vibrant and creative - but it seems that we are all more in tune with the notion that people, like Marta Marques, just float through the racks. “I am a big men’s clothing consumer”, she tells us in the duo’s studio in the Bethnal Green area. “We have men buying our t-shirt dresses to wear as a t-shirt and our women’s shorts were pretty boyish, working for men too. There was a group of our ‘basics’ that worked for both genders”, says Paulo Almeida on a grey June afternoon.
Design has been brewing this trend for a while. Some of the wardrobe staples of the last decade are definitely not so binary anymore - just look at the skinny jeans, the leather biker jacket or the long hemmed shirts and t-shirts. The silhouette of the urban warrior of the noughties is gender neutral (if you are thinking of Hedi Slimane, a gold star for you) and the more recent athleisure trend adds another coat to this blurry yet poignant picture.
Like Mick Jagger playing in a dress in London’s Hyde Park or David Bowie wearing the same brand of dress as his Rolling Stones colleague, Mr Fish, on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, there’s Kanye in Céline in Coachella in 2011 or Jared Leto in a skirt on stage in 2015. Diane Keaton and Patti Smith sported their fabulous androgynous looks or “men’s” suits, Peaches does her thing on and off stage and Tilda Swinton or Kate Lanphear just gender bend it like Beckham.
“Androgyny is certainly not a passing trend, but one that is going through another cycle with a new generation”, says the merchandise manager for men's at Barneys New York Tom Kalenderian. He’s seen trends come and go and still believes, as he told Bloomberg a couple of months ago, that this one’s gonna last - “these clothes are stylistically less rigid than what we perceive to conform to a definition of masculine vs. feminine”.
Pussy-bows for men in Gucci, Miuccia Prada musing on “the unexpected possibilities” regarding the way men and women dress, Moschino, Armani, Dior including women’s looks, modelled by women or men, in their menswear runway shows, Céline’s continuous bet on mannish tailoring for women’s clothing, the omnipresent boyfriend jean, Julia Roberts in a suit on Givenchy ads. After the tomboys and combat boots of the 90s and Gwyneth Paltrow in that sexy red velvet Gucci by Tom Ford pant suit, after Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking in 1966, it seems to be time for the 21st century to give it’s kids a ride on the gender ferris wheel.
“It’s about the younger generation pushing against boundaries, but also it’s a reflection of where we are. There’s a new interest in feminism, you can’t ignore that, it feeds into fashion. Women are lucky that we’ve been able to adopt androgynous looks easily. And in society there’s a focus now on the trans community. And sexuality is no longer the big issue it was” - Oriole Cullen, curator of fashion at the V&A, tells the BBC. But can’t it be mainly a generational thing, a youth thing? It’s what Angelo Flaccavento has defended on The Business of Fashion in January - “another glorification of youth. Genderless styles, in fact, require bodies so lean and skinny, so pale and neutral, they can only be adopted by those at the age of puberty or a little older”.
It’s something that has been happening in London Fashion Week for several seasons (JW Anderson and Meadham Kirchoff spring to mind, obviously) and it’s safe to say genderbending occupies such a space for vibrant discussion on and off the runway that we can almost see that times, they are a changin. But… don’t get your hopes up. Just click on the comments section of your daily newspaper or your glossy magazine’s social media and check for yourself that mentalities still have a long, long way to go. Yes, Selfridge’s opened the new department and campaign Agender, representing 15 unisex brands, including Gareth Pugh or Nicola Formichetti’s Nicopanda. But the floor closed in April, although it still runs online. And it’s all business as usual in other houses - the Dolces and the Gabannas are doing their traditional family man-and-wife thing, Versace is totally sexy lady/typical male. So is it all noise? Paulo Almeida, working for a clientele that includes Rihanna or the Jenner sisters, but also loads of anonymous boys and girls, is sure of one thing: “things aren’t that literal anymore”.