Is what lies underneath androgynous fashion a fight for equality?
When David Bowie grooved eclectic make up, theatrical hairstyles and clothes that danced on the edge, it was little short of a scandal. Nonetheless, he is today rightfully honored as a pioneer of non-binary expression, and on top of that, one who used his iconic status to publicly open a door that very few people had yet dared to open.
The term androgynous has its roots in ancient Greek and encompasses both male and female physical characteristics. To go further down the road to the 18th century, would mean we ended up in a period where it was completely ordinary to see a rich man wear a silky, pink attire with golden details. At the time, the main purpose of clothes was to demonstrate your class belonging and it wasn’t until the 19th century that it was so rigorously bifurcated between sexes.
Traditional roles assumed by men and women served as the defining criteria for this segmentation, but the closer we got to the second decade of the 21st century, the more blurred these lines became. A rise in popularity of androgynous style occurred after WWI when the grand Coco Chanel herself trailblazed the so-called flapper style – chic trousers and The Bob hairstyle.
Whether it had to do with the atrocities of war or the slow, but definite emancipation of women, one thing remains clear: The cat was out of the bag. The cat being that pants are much more comfortable and practical, and the bag being years of oppression whose authority was rooted only in what genitalia you were born with.
The changing social context
The world has boarded a slow, but steady path in an encouraging direction. There has been a noticeable rise in the number of stay-at-home dads. As this Forbes article goes to show, dads in 2016 spent about eight hours a week on childcare, which is three times more than a dad in 1965. This is not great, I admit, and it seems almost silly to be excited about these numbers, but it is a significant improvement if we compare it to the statistics from the past.
Having the social context in mind, in a classical case of life imitating art, the proof that mainstream fashion is mimicking this tectonic change is all around us.
Don’t act like you know me
The reason why androgynous clothes have caused such a stir might be because sticking to clearly defined social norms – some things considered feminine, and others masculine, evokes within people an ostensible sense of security. Androgynous fashion plays with these boundaries and disrupts the already established perceptions of gender identities, which could make certain groups of people feel like the world as they know it is challenged.
On the other hand, being brought up in the midst of clearly drawn lines between what’s feminine or masculine, often leaves us feeling, to say the least – suffocated.
“The stereotypical masculine or feminine qualifications are not personality characteristics of individual men and women but socially constructed representations of gender, on the basis of what society expects of each sex (Condor, 1987; Lloyd & Duveen, 1993). These expectations organize the social gender identity, making a strong frame of reference within which boys and girls socialize and adults are redefined.”
So, this got me thinking: Are we trying to efface the stiff gender traits from fashion in order to feel more in control of our own narratives? Are we, as a society, fed up with the pressure of fitting into molds?
A straw in the wind that announced what was coming to those paying attention were certainly Italian winners of the Eurovision Song Contest of 2021. The young foursome’s daring and anti-establishment vibe were just… spellbinding, or to put it simply: They were singing a different tune (pun intended).
A girl and three guys swept Europe off its feet as if they were seeping pure liquid euphoria, and it wasn’t just because of the catchy song in a sexy language. No, it was the glam rock, characterized by heel-wearing, nail-painting, red faux leather costumes so ungendered, that the members could have easily swiped outfits with one another.
As the recent Menswear Fall-Winter in Paris has made it clear just last month, the world is ready to move onto the next stage. And while Måneskin’s landing on the world scene had announced it, now it’s unequivocally clear: The genderless fashion revolution has started.
Even though it seemed like Doja Cat’s all red stunt and Kylie’s lion dress stole the show (quite literally, too), fashion so obviously unisex ruled the runways. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, it feels like a sign of the times, and it’s making me look gleefully into what the future brings.
Gender imposed upon birth
Before I was born, the doctor told my parents I would be a boy. Consequently, blue clothes were prepared, but the doctors have been reading the ultrasound incorrectly during the lengthy period of 9 months.
Since my being a girl surprised everybody, my father had to rush out and buy a little red baby suit, because well, you know… It was unimaginable that a baby girl emerged from the hospital wearing a blue baby suit… In my case, I was living the social construct of gender since the first time clothes were put on me.
Don’t get me wrong – despite the fact that resentment towards this rigid segmentation does exist, I understand the logic behind it: In order to fit in and be considered a valuable member of society, you’d better be wearing the right clothes.
And it’s not completely irrational, because according to this article, the two most influential socio-cultural factors that shape gender are dress and fashion, and being the social creatures we are, the lengths we would go to so we’d feel like we belong are immeasurable.
Women over the years have gotten creative when it comes to staying true to the established image of femininity and the new jobs/activities for which they needed more practical clothes.
The case of the skorts
or: appearing to be feminine when in fact you’re being… comfortable?
Somebody from the fashion industry had an idea: How about we resurrect a piece of garment which will allow women to appear to be wearing a skirt, when in fact it will be a pair of shorts (that somebody probably being a man)?
What am I talking about? Of course, skorts. The word says it all – it is a concoction of a skirt and shorts. Seemingly just another fad, but is it more than that? Could it be a compromise between utility and femininity?
Skorts are thought to have originated from bloomers and jupe-culottes which were, to say the least, outrageous when they first showed from under a skirt in the late 19th century. Later, this particular cut found its way into the mainstream culture thanks to women in sports who wore it in order to be able to move in an agile manner, without restrictions.
Now, the question posing itself is: Why can’t the words feminine and comfortable go hand in hand?
I love skirts and heels as much as the next guy, but the wisdom I learn with age is: I want to be comfortable. Both in my own skin and my clothes.
Will androgynous dressing break the glass ceiling?
A modern-day woman has long proved her ability to push boundaries in the business world, but it seems that ‘power dressing’ for females still needs some work done on the ‘power’ segment.
While choosing clothes, we consider the two factors: What is the occasion? and What is the message we are giving away?
This might be particularly tricky for women in the business world, because for them the rules haven’t been as clear-cut as for men’s business attire.
Working women have to strike a very fine balance between being perceived as too feminine or too masculine. If a businesswoman dresses too femininely, she risks not being taken seriously or worse – as a sexual object. On the other hand, if she dares to embrace the androgynous style, her male colleagues almost always feel threatened.
The conflict has been present in fashion for decades – the unsurpassed example is the female blazer from the 80’s. Enforced by shoulder pads, its objective was to visually de-feminize a female wearing it, in order to get her closer to a chance to play the corporate game. Let’s take a look at how far we’ve come in 2023.
Whether we focus on the roots, or the consequences, the fact that Zara’s men department is crammed with women on the prowl for oversized, gender-neutral clothes (even in my home country, which is still mostly a patriarchal society) fills me with a colossal sense of hope about the direction in which this world is headed.
We are currently at a crossroads, indebted to the David Bowies and Coco Chanels who helped pave the way for us, so today we can wear clothes that feel good and not let other people’s feeling of unease define the conception of femininity or confine us to any type of garment pronounced as belonging to a certain gender.