Insight: Androgyny in Contemporary Fashion
Increasingly, there seems to be an intriguing double take in collections and campaigns – is he/she? We look at the androgyny of contemporary fashion.
It is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be a woman-manly or a man-womanly. This was Virginia Woolf’s damning verdict on defining men and women as the intransigent black-and-white opposite of the other, with no space for individual freedom of expression in between. She created her famous androgyne Orlando to challenge this fatality, but even he (eventually she) could not escape the strict gender codes of dress. Because while Orlando selects and sheds genders as she does garments, with each outfit she acquires the associated posture and role to suit her activities. Dress codes dictating how men and women ought to think and act are as prevalent now as ever before.
The avant-garde in fashion, however, has enjoyed a long and colorful history of flirting with androgyny. Victorian dandies, Marcel Duchamp’s self-duplication in Rrose Sélavy, and of course the seminal stirring of the pot by Jean Paul Gaultier when he sent skirts for men down the runway in 1984 (a scandal equivalent to trousers for women). Not to mention the otherworldly glamour of David Bowie, the wild flamboyance of Mick Jagger, and the Japanese revolution that Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo brought to Paris – all have at various points tipped the gender divide.
Meanwhile, the 1980s pushed androgyny into an era of high camp as the subcultural hotbed of London and New York’s club scenes spawned the exaggerated trans-gendered theatricality of men in frocks. This stylized pantomime expressed extreme (bordering on perverse) stereotypes of doll-like femininity, propelling practitioners – most notably Leigh Bowery and Boy George – into the unhinged and deliberately absurdist heights of the surreal.
Perhaps in response to the comic excess of camp, the post-party androgyny of the 1990s adopted a more understated ambiguity in the form of grunge. Moving away from a statement about sexuality to a broader expression of freedom and individuality (Kurt Cobain was publicly nonchalant about his taste for off-the-cuff cross-dressing: “I like to wear dresses because they’re comfortable… if I said we do it to be subversive then that would be a load of s***, because men in bands wearing dresses isn’t controversial anymore.”), it had less to do with men and women swapping wardrobes as sharing them. And it wasn’t just the clothes that were shared, but the figure as well – that (lifestyle-assisted) skinny-hipped, flat-chested silhouette that could be applied to either sex.
The androgynous figure continues to be a mainstay in contemporary fashion, simply because its very nature confers a playful subversion that separates from the banality of everyday life (fashion loves to disorient its audience after all). Dozens of designers shared their perspective on Gaultier’s skirt for men, from Vivienne Westwood and Dries Van Noten, to most notably Riccardo Tisci, whose Givenchy leather skirt arguably sparked the modern incarnation of the trend. Elsewhere, Jonathan Anderson dressed boys in frills and high slits in his iconoclastic menswear, while Hedi Slimane’s obsession with the atrophied grunge look displaced traditional beefcakes with wispy waifs on the runway. It goes on: Slimane upped the ante by shooting his debut menswear for Saint Laurent on the very gamine Saskia de Brauw; transgender model-muse Andrej Pejic slotted seamlessly into female line-ups (but not as a hyperbolic drag queen); and menswear in general started proffering high-heeled boots, chiffon blouses and a proclivity for pink.
Such miscegenation occurred during a time when menswear was undergoing a sort of revolution, in part due to masculinity and conventional ideas about the roles of men (at work and at home) rapidly unravelling in the new millennium. But while the discourse on menswear expanded, it never once feminized men (fringe fashions notwithstanding). Rather, when men picked something seemingly from a woman’s wardrobe, they reinterpreted it – indeed emphasised it – according to old-school codes of manliness; so a pair of leggings quickly turned sporty, or skirts are worn on top of pants or with a buff bod. Celebrities like Kanye West, Jaden Smith and G-Dragon pushed this notion onto the mainstream by co-opting it into their looks, and for a while it seemed that the collective consciousness was getting comfortable with experimentation. Then Gucci’s Fall 2015 menswear happened.
When Frida Giannini unceremoniously exited Gucci and then-head accessories designer Alessandro Michele post-hastily appointed as her replacement, no one could’ve expected a willowy boy with long blond hair in a red pussy-bow blouse to be the next incarnation of the brand, especially when it has always had masculinity so firmly on its agenda. This sudden embrace of effeminacy (perhaps following the urgent brief to make Gucci younger and fresher again), with an homme-femme as delicate as the silk he wears, left the fashion world reeling: Confusion, applause, hysteria, excitement. But Michele’s androgyny was less about the reverse polarity of men in dresses as it is about the free-flowing, inter-gender fluidity that unifies aspects of both sexes in a number of integrated aesthetics. He clarified this vision in his subsequent collection for Spring 2016, citing “détournement” (or recontextualizing) as the driving force – “Clothes are clothes. A man can wear something from a woman. We don’t have to put too many rules on the customer.” And so, the pussy-bow blouse finds new meaning on men.
The new Gucci made androgyny the talking point again, an androgyny that had a renewed sense of playing with sartorial codes and disrupting gender boundaries that clothing creates and reinforces. It was a theme that pointed towards genderless fashion and the convertibility of man and woman through neutral clothing (a concept that closely mirrors the unisex aesthetic of 1990s grunge), and its effects were immediately apparent in the following season (Spring 2016). Just look at Burberry’s convincing use of lace as a menswear fabric, or the mixing of menswear and womenswear on runways like Prada and Armani, where both male and female models dressed in more or less the same looks. In fact, Burberry has announced plans to replace its current four-show calendar with two season-less, integrated menswear and womenswear collections on the runway, skipping London Collections: Men altogether; “The changes we are making will allow us to build a closer connection between the experience that we create with our runway shows and the moment people can physically explore the collections for themselves,” explained chief creative and CEO Christopher Bailey.
The storied fashions of androgyny articulated many questions about gender and sex but in the end provided no final answers. Its aim was to prove that fashion need not be separated by gender, that it’s about fighting simplistic labels rather than creating them. It’s certainly not about drag (leave that to the professionals) nor is it a “crisis of manhood”, but a graceful visualisation of a woman-manly or man-womanly, as Woolf puts it. Time is still needed to reach the point where the general mass breaks down the barrier of what is masculine and feminine and just wear clothing they feel comfortable in, but fashion’s braver provocateurs like the messianic Michele are leading to this new dawn. Perhaps one day it’ll no longer be about androgyny at all. “People always think it is,” says Jonathan Anderson (about his eponymous brand), “But it isn’t at all; it has always been about the idea of a shared wardrobe.”
Text by Yong Wei Jian
This article was originally published in Men’s Folio