Recently, more so than ever, androgyny is a prevalent theme in the fashion industry. We have seen Alessandro Michele at Gucci presenting flamboyant bright colours on lace, chiffon and flares for their mens collection. Selfridges have opened a new unisex shop called Agender. Miuccia Prada presented a manifesto at her show which questions the role and relevance of traditional gender definitions in fashion, stating at the press release: “[now is the] perfect moment to analyse this subject more deeply to measure what the genders share, what they take from each other”.
However in this latest trend people often conflate differing gender terminology. For example the trans models Andrej Pejic and Lea T are often mentioned in the same breath as androgyny. I understand that they are often spoken together to discuss the wider role of gender in fashion but it is important to distinguish between androgyny and other terms, such as transgender. Therefore, partially using Genderqueer Identities, I will present some identities and terms that are often confused and conflated:
Agender (non-gender): “not identifying with any gender, the feeling of having no gender.” “a term used to describe a person without gender. This person can be any physical sex, but their body does not necessarily correspond with their lack of gender identity”
Androgyne: “1. A person whose biological sex is not readily apparent. 2. A person who is intermediate between the two traditional genders. 3. A person who rejects gender roles entirely.”
Bigender: “To identify as both genders and/or to have a tendency to move between masculine and feminine gender-typed behaviour depending on context, expressing a distinctly male persona and a distinctly female persona, two separate genders in one body.”
Crossdresser: “A person who, regardless of motivation, wears clothes, makeup, etc. that are considered by the culture to be appropriate for another gender but not one’s own (preferred term to “transvestite”). This gender non-conforming behaviour should not be conflated with queer sexualities. Many cross-dressers are heterosexual and conduct their cross-dressing on a part-time basis. Cross-dressing might also be termed gender non-conforming behaviour.”
Gender fluid: “Referring to a gender identity that changes with time and/or situation as opposed to a fixed sex-role or gender queer expression”
GenderFuck: “The idea of playing with gender cues to purposely confuse, mix, or combine a culture’s standard or stereotypical gender expressions.”
Intergender: “A person whose gender identity is between genders or a combination of genders.”
Unisex: “Designed for or suitable to both sexes: unisex clothing; a unisex restroom. A condition or style characterised by the absence of distinctions based on gender.
You can see there are many terms and it takes a long time to understand the nuances of each term and the relationships between the terms, I am still learning. I believe we have been using the term androgyny incorrectly, based on the definition of the terms here I think unisex would be a more appropriate term, and it is beginning to take hold in the industry. For the term androgynous is becoming outdated, as stated by designer Paula Gerbase (1205) for The Guardian: “People call a woman in trousers androgynous, but they've been wearing them for so long that for me it doesn't really count.” The true definition or meaning of androgyny, according to fashion theorist Fred Davis, “would involve a melding or muting of gender-specific items of apparel and appearance so thorough as to obliterate anything beyond a biological 'reading' of a person’s sex. The clothing and other costuming borne by the person would have 'nothing to say' on the matter of gender or sexual role.”
To understand this and the complexities of unisex clothing I want to give you a quick basic understanding on feminist gender theory and how that applies to fashion. In feminist theory gender is seen as the personality traits and behaviours that are specifically associated with either masculinity or femininity (trousers are masculine while dresses are feminine) while sex is a biological given, i.e. the physiological differences between men and women. Gender is seen as a historical and cultural variable and construct that can change over time and location, e.g. men wearing kilts in Scotland could be considered a feminine trait like a skirt. We develop our gender by first gender labelling (“you’re a boy”), gender specific knowledge (“boys don’t wear skirts”), universality of gender (“all boys are strong”) and finally gender constancy (a child constantly being called and behaving like a boy). Our gender is determined by our sex but they are not the same thing. They do often correlate, (men being masculine) and when they don’t we often find it new and exciting. As stated by Braukämper the trend for unisex clothing is the "stirring of a desire we don’t quite understand. It’s the incongruity, the question mark, that intrigues”. Currently we are seeing more of a breaking down of these societal constraints as women have already experienced, wearing suits and trousers. What I hope to see now is a greater femininity in mens clothing rather than women solely assimilating into mens clothing. In addition I hope that designers are and will design unisex clothing due to a desire to create something new, interesting and radical rather than using unisex clothing as a cheap gimmick which I suspect some fashion houses of doing, in order to draw more attention to their collections and thus make more money.
It is also important to remember that unisex clothing is nothing new. Oriole Cullen, fashion curator at the V&A told the BBC that trends in androgyny often correlate to social upheaval. The 20th century examples she sites are the 1920s where underwear was used to flatten breasts and tubular silhouettes were in fashion. This time for Cullen was “the birth of modernity, there were lots of young women entering the workforce and becoming independent”. A similar situation occurred during World War II where functional clothing including brogues and knitwear became fashionable. Continuing this theory to the present day, some theorists argue that currently men are in a “crisis of masculinity”, where men no longer have a stable identity due to increased women in the work force and the rise of feminism. As a result men are looking to other genders and identities to establish their own identities. However I disagree with this idea being translated to present trends. They are not in a “crisis of masculinity” since men are not a homogenous group and men still earn more and make up a larger portion of the work force while women are still discriminated against in the patriarchy.
Alternatively the new desire for unisex clothing is due to “younger generation[s] pushing against boundaries”, “ new interest in feminism… and in society focus on the trans community. And sexuality is no longer the big issue it was” (Cullen). I believe this to be the inspiration for recent trend for unisex clothing, especially in the 1960s counter culture with Le Smoking by Yves Saint Lauren described by the designer in Women’s Wear Daily as something that “played with a certain ambiguity… created something that looked equally chic on men and women”. Finally I couldn’t write an article about unisex clothing without mentioned Jean Paul Gautier whose skirts for men in 1985 were revolutionary, as stated by Cullen: “[there is] an inclusivity in Gautier’s work, he always encouraged different body shapes on the catwalk, and there was a sense of joy and positivity about it”. We are seeing men in skirts and dresses come again into fashion with Rick Owen’s collections, especially 2011 and 2012.
All of this, to me suggests that unisex clothing is here to stay. This is a very exciting time for the fashion industry. Perhaps as more and more items of clothing lose their gender specificity, less clothing would be labeled androgynous, instead perhaps everything will be unisex and gender itself will disappear as a construct! This is wishful thinking, as seen when New York just started its own mens fashion week this year- it seems the binary will remain for a while. But I am hopeful that I will see unisex clothing trickle down to the high street in a couple of years, providing Agender is a successful model which will be able to be copied.
Written by George Toon, contributor for Erebus.