In 2013’s Full of Fire, Karen Dreijer Andersen sang “let’s talk about gender baby, let’s talk about you and me”. It seemed that the fashion world listened to her plea; two years of discussion on gender binaries and gendered clothing ensued. The concept of a woman in “menswear” is not a new one in fashion. Chanel made it acceptable for women to wear the trousers way back in the 1930s, and YSL later coined Le Smoking in 1966, a figure enhancing take on the men’s tuxedo which snowballed in popularity and spawned countless imitations. Recent years have also seen designers attempt to repurpose the male wardrobe for women – it started with the boyfriend jean, which was later teamed with the boyfriend blazer and finally the boyfriend shirt. Essentially, the concept of a gender-bending wardrobe is not one which is particularly new or radical; if you’re a woman, that is.
|J.W Anderson for Loewe|
Progress in menswear has been significantly slower. Although big-name designers such as Rick Owens, J.W Anderson and, most recently, Alessandro Michele for Gucci have incorporated femininity into their collections, the general consensus is still that these looks will never be embraced by the mainstream man. A fascinating article was published on i-D recently, entitled “Fashion and the Normal Boy”. The author explored modern masculinity and made an interesting point that, in terms of young men, what constitutes a ‘normal’ man has changed. Men are now divided into style tribes in just the same way that women are – there are the skater boys, for example, which we know have influenced designers like Raf Simons, and there are the boys in tracksuits, the “lads”, obviously referenced by designers such as Christopher Shannon and Nasir Mazhar. However, it seems that none of these men are the street are willing to fully buy into the gender-neutral clothing. The concept has recently gained traction – Selfridges’ Agender line is just one commercial example, but it seems that codes of masculinity are too socially-ingrained to shift within just a few years.
|Christopher Shannon A/W14|
Androgyny, when explored with women, is seen as empowerment. Take the suit – it is an archaic symbol of power, visually associated with men at the top of the corporate food chain. With smoking jackets, tuxedos and tailored suits we think of power, we think of money and we think of status. Society teaches us that these things are aspirational; they are where we should aim to be. A woman in a tailored suit began as a political statement as opposed to a mere aesthetic choice. Gendered clothing goes back centuries, to times when only men could wear trousers and women were subordinate in their knee-length dresses. For Coco Chanel, choosing to defy these expectations was a feminist statement – she wanted to assert herself, and therefore women in traditionally-male clothing became an appropriation of traditionally-male attributes. These women were now dressing for the workplace when they had previously dressed for household chores. Society tells us that “masculine” attributes are the ones which are essential for success. Aggression, ambition, determination; these are all attributes which are implied by suits and ties. Nicki Minaj referenced this in a now-famous scene, in which she nailed this gender bias perfectly; “when I am assertive, I am a bitch. When a man is assertive, he bossed up. No negative connotation behind being a boss, but lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch”.
|Yves Saint Laurent - Le Smoking|
The sad truth is that gendered clothing goes back centuries, and the history behind this provides a simple answer to the lack of mainstream acceptance of men in female-gendered clothing. Historically, society tells us that male attributes and male behaviour are aspirational, and therefore a woman dressed in menswear is grading herself up. She is “bossing up” – she is shedding the feminine attributes of weakness or a lack of assertiveness. When men wear female-gendered clothing they are, in social terms, lowering themselves. Modern society still prides masculinity above all other attributes – men are the ones that can fix things, win wars, protect his family and be the breadwinner. In a TED talk (arguably made by famous by Beyoncé), Chimamanda Ngozi talks of the way men are brought up, the way that men are taught to adhere to rigid social codes of masculinity. A man dressed in female-gendered clothing is still a taboo, and this is the reason that skirts, dresses and jumpsuits for men remain runway staples which struggle to translate to the mainstream.
|Hari Nef, transgender model|
For the sake of brevity, the discussion of transgender activists and their prominent place in the mainstream can be omitted from this article, but it is important to note that gender boundaries are more blurred than ever, and that modern masculinity is malleable. This all reminds me of a conversation I had over a year ago with a menswear design duo based in London, Ada & Nik. Greek heroes featured heavily on their moodboards, the idea of the original primitive warriors that dominated the world and preceded modern gendered stereotypes. As Nik said, these men managed to rule the world and they did it all with long hair in a skirt. Culture and society are constantly evolving, and they can slowly be changed. What needs to happen is that more men need to look to high fashion and consider the concept of androgyny. We need to see more examples of powerful, influential men tapping into their feminine side, and we need to be reminded that fashion is about creativity and self-expression. The notion that an androgynous male is less ‘masculine’ – in other words less powerful, less assertive, needs to be dismissed entirely or at least partially negated so that men of the world can finally explore a range of sartorial options without fear of judgment. Because, to be honest, I would rather sell my soul on eBay than wear a tuxedo or a tailored suit.