Vv Magazine’s fashion editor Philip Mak digs his claws into the cultural phenomena and “trend” that is androgyny. Could this be the beginning of a political movement in fashion? Read more to find out…
Androgyny gets bantered about a lot these days. While historically the term has referred to a mixture of masculine and feminine characteristics, it has since come to encompass lifestyle areas including gender expression, sexuality, and fashion. Because it has come represent so many different themes, perspectives on androgyny can vary enormously depending on who you’re talking to. With menswear-inspired looks strutting down the women’s catwalks of Burberry, and skirted shorts on the menswear runways of Y-3, many have ventured to call it a fashion trend.
First off, androgyny is not a fashion trend. Well, it kind of is though really you should view it more as a movement. Traditionally, gender in fashion has been positioned on a binary of women’s clothing and menswear. While high fashion has often made allowances for a certain degree of gender-bending, overall these two categories are actively enforced by the norms of our society and well-intentioned, pesky sales associates pointing you towards the section of the store they perceive is most aligned with your biological sex. That was a long-winded way of describing how I’m often told, “The men’s section is over there, sir” while I casually shop for crop tops.
Emerging Toronto-based designer Willis Chan is becoming known for his androgynous and fashion-forward wares. He says, “I don’t believe that androgyny has yet to be a fashion trend, but is slowly becoming more recognized as a movement parallel to the societal acceptance of breaking the traditional rules of gender binaries. I hope, however, that it doesn’t become as much a trend (because of how disposable trends can be), but more of a new social commentary and acceptance of fluidity throughout society.”
However, androgyny is increasingly making its way into the mainstream. Particularly in the realm of menswear there has been a notable shift towards the middle, though it can be said that we North Americans are a little late catching on. Asian designers, particularly in South Korea and Japan, such as Yohji Yamamoto, Commes des Garcons, and Juunj, have been promoting the androgynous aesthetic for years. In Europe, there is also more fluidity in male expression through clothing, with examples in designers such as Henrik Vibskov in Denmark, and Craig Green and J.W. Anderson in the United Kingdom. Anderson, in particular, has become a darling of the European style community, winning Best Menswear Designer at this year’s British Fashion Awards and thus cementing androgyny in the U.K.’s fashion zeitgeist.
Among women’s clothing there has also been a heavier masculine influence. Besides the resurgence in popularity of menswear-inspired pieces such as full suits and oversized cuts, there has also been a modern take on the “skort.” These hybrid styles are generally a mixture of masculine trousers and feminine skirts, as seen in the collections of MA Julius, Gareth Pugh, and Oak + Fort. But what does it all mean?
Androgyny in fashion actively plays with the intersection of biological sex, socially-given gender, and personal expression. To clear things up quickly: biological sex is based on your genitals and chromosomes, and is the basis for your social gender – often times before you leave the womb. If you’re a girl, it’s not by chance that immediately after your ultrasound, your parents bought three tubs of pink paint and stock in My Little Pony. Your social gender is assigned to you at birth (also based on your genitals) and will influence how people treat you from that day forwards – especially in terms of fashion. Those of us born with a penis are generally dressed in blue clothing, are told how tough and athletic we’re destined to be, and are given rough-and-tumble gear like cargo shorts, overalls, and trousers to complement this idea. Girls, by contrast, have value attributed to their daintiness and overall ability to be “pretty” – think skirts, dresses, and bows.
This is not to say that those who dress androgynously want to play to these extremes. In many cases, it is quite the contrary. Androgynous fashion is often designed to be devoid of gender (or actively masks it); this can be referred to as unisex clothing. It is meant to be worn with equal ease by both male and female individuals. Chan tells us, “Androgyny, to me, is similar to unisex dress however, unisex dress is the deconstruction of gender binaries and design elements and allows the reinvention of a completely new form where gender does not matter.”
“When one thinks of 20-somethings getting dressed for the club, the picture is usually boobs out, legs out, muscles out – not exactly androgynous.”
Canadian designer Rad Hourani has emerged as an international champion of unisex fashion, becoming the first person ever to present an entirely unisex collection at Paris Couture Week. His clothing is decidedly minimal, cleanly cut, boxy, structured, and absent of colour. In many ways, Hourani’s designs embody what many believe is the overall aesthetic of androgyny. This limited scope of colour to black, white, and grey highlights an intriguing aspect of our society’s association of gender and colour. If a man were wearing Hourani’s unisex skirt-paneled trousers in a hot pink or fuschia, would it still be called androgyny or would it be more in line with gender non-conformity or even cross-dressing? Perhaps then it can be said that an absence of colour establishes the degree of neutrality necessary for an ambiguity or lack of gender.
The other qualities of Hourani’s unisex fashions include boxy cuts and longer lengths to conceal the body. In many ways, these act to cover up the secondary sex characteristics most people have including leg hair, breasts, and defined musculature. While removing a certain amount of individuality, this serves to even the playing field, so to speak. Interestingly, by covering up these secondary sex characteristics, this removes much of the attraction from fashion. When one thinks of 20-somethings getting dressed for the club, the picture is usually boobs out, legs out, muscles out – not exactly androgynous.
One of my favourite fashion blogs, Men Style Fashion, had an opinion piece discussing the issue of “feminized” men’s clothing and how it is single-handedly destroying the world. To summarize, the author cites the 2013 fall/winter collections of DSquared and Roccobarocco to show that male models with a V-shape (accentuating strong musculature and a “healthy waistline”) have been replaced by those with narrow shoulders and feminine hips. In turn, these feminized ideals in men’s fashion are a direct attack on masculinity and guys’ ability to attract women in order to promote reproduction. You don’t need a psychology degree (which I have, by the way) to know that essentializing fashion into basic evolutionary terms like this is asinine. Fashion is a cultural institution influenced by politics, economics, and creativity much more than our desire to proliferate our seed. While poorly conceived, his argument is a good example of hegemonic masculinity. Have no idea what I’m talking about? No worries — I’m not going to test you on it. Hegemonic masculinity is a form of patriarchy that promotes the dominant social position of men through the subordination of women and all things deemed feminine – including men who don’t perform to a predetermined standard of maleness. Basically, Asshole 101.
“If a man dresses effeminately, he must be gay; if a woman dresses like a tomboy, chances are she’s a lesbian”
The practice of hegemonic masculinity has traditionally been what keeps male expression of gender much more limited than women’s, particularly in fashion. For instance, Julia Roberts’ recent ads for Givenchy, featuring the actress wearing a menswear-inspired suit without makeup, did not stir up any reflection on her sexuality or gender. By contrast, a man wearing a dress down the street is often verbally bashed by other men about his gender and sexuality, particularly in less urban areas. This highlights one of the main tactics of hegemonic masculinity, which is to make sexuality and gender the same issue. If a man dresses effeminately, he must be gay; if a woman dresses like a tomboy, chances are she’s a lesbian – or a 90s business woman dressing to be taken seriously in a “man’s world.” Holla at Agent Dana Scully, anyone?
It is also because of hegemonic masculinity that we, as a society, have focused on the seeming rise of androgyny in modern fashion. While menswear-inspired styles for women have been frequent and cyclical, ranging from the flappers aesthetics of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, to the more suit-and-tie looks of Darryl Hannah and Diane Keaton in the 80s, mainstream men have generally been more restricted in their expression – barring of course 1980s glam rock. Luckily, things are changing.
“There seems to be a double standard of androgyny in fashion where male fashions get imported into the female world but not vice-versa”
I chatted with one of my favourite professors from university, Marc Lafrance, Associate Professor of Sociology at Concordia University in Montreal and currently visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford in England, about how current political and social environments have allowed room for different expressions of masculinity in the mainstream. “There seems to be a double standard of androgyny in fashion where male fashions get imported into the female world but not vice-versa,” he notes. “The scope of acceptable masculine presentation of self has expanded. There’s hipster masculinity, there’s queer masculinity, there’s vegetarian/vegan masculinity… there’s all sorts of different kinds that overlap and are acceptable – especially in urban centres.”
This did not happen overnight though. Lafrance also shares that the changing family structure, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, has played a key role in creating more room for androgyny in fashion. “Men for the first time ever in the history of North American have started to fall behind women as the primary breadwinners of households. Women are outperforming men at every level of university now – that’s been confirmed. Women now dominate law; they dominate medicine — at least in terms of graduating classes. Stay-at-home dads are becoming a bigger and bigger thing. Therefore, it only stands to reason that insofar as the gender order is being rethought and reworked in our culture, fashion goes along with that. Fashion is the face of the body, fashion is the face of gender. As women become more socially and culturally ascendant, it would make sense that perhaps their fashions would too.”
In the post-Lady Gaga world, much of androgyny’s wider acceptance also owes itself to the LGBT and feminist movements. As Lafrance notes, “The feminist movement got us rethinking what it means to be a woman, and the relationship between biological sex and social gender.” This, in turn, paved the way for the LGBT movement. “By the time we reached the 1990s and early 2000s, the LGBT movement began seeing successes and gains in terms of rights and overall social acceptability that have been unprecedented. With that increased socio-political and legal acceptance and acceptability has come increased influence in the realm of popular culture – and I would include fashion in that. The number of gay and trans characters that one sees on mainstream television shows has proliferated enormously – there’s no question that the overall level of visibility has increased and with that more sensitivity around the identity issues that affect those communities and how heterosexuals can help ensure that we create a just society for all.”
But is this what androgyny means?
Well, again, it depends who you’re talking to. For many, androgyny is a personal identity based on physical features and gender association. Model and NORD Magazine creative director Myles Sexton has walked catwalks for both women’s clothing and menswear for his entire career, including Toronto-based designer Som Kong, Malafacha in Mexico, Haute Coiffure Francaise in Paris, and in a presentation for German designer Esther Perbandt where he opened the show in male clothing and closed it in a full gown.
Sexton feels like he has identified as androgynous, or two-spirited, from birth. Two-spirited is a Native Canadian term that was traditionally applied to individuals who had characteristics, both physically and mentally, that were both male and female. Much like today’s fashion scene, these people were revered for their beauty and wisdom. Sexton notes his effeminate features, small waist, and overall lean body – coupled with the fact that he never fits into untailored men’s clothing – as evidence.
“This is my body type, this is who I am, and this is who I am as a person — so I find it a little bit bizarre that now it’s cool to do it when people would make fun of me about it.”
Interestingly, Sexton separates his identity as an androgynous person from the fashion trend he perceives is gaining popularity. “I feel dressing androgynously now is a thing. You’re noticing that people are bleaching their eyebrows to create a softer look on their face, or cutting their hair a certain way, or wearing clothes that represent androgyny, whereas I feel for me androgyny was more about gender identity as opposed to a style.” Also, Sexton notes how hegemonic masculinity has operated even within the fashion community to police his gender expression. “This is my body type, this is who I am, and this is who I am as a person — so I find it a little bit bizarre that now it’s cool to do it when people would make fun of me about it. Especially in gay culture, to be androgynous or dress effeminate was such a negative thing and now it’s such a cool thing in the industry – people who used to make fun of me are now doing it.”
So is androgyny really a fashion trend? Maybe. As Lafrance reminded us, it’s not inappropriate to draw the conclusion that, “If you want to be a cynic, you can say it’s a gimmick. It’s one more trend that makes use of something exciting happening in popular culture, exploits it, and that it will ultimately be a passing phase.” However, I’m more apt to agree with Willis in that androgyny is part of a movement, spurred on by positive advancements in our society. I think that it opens up conversations about gender, and what it truly means to be masculine, feminine, genderqueer, or none of the above. I’ll leave you with a quote from Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: “It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.”
What are your thoughts on androgyny being a fashion trend or not? Let Vv Magazine know your thoughts on “Why the New Androgyny Matters” in the comments section below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.