By Paisley Hansen
In the 20th century, androgynous fashion was a concept often reserved for the pages of the high fashion Bibles like Vogue, and often involved little more than putting a few men’s suits on a few women’s bodies, and wearing a set of Oakley sunglasses. Today, however, the lines between men’s fashion and women’s fashion are slowly being blurred…but, then again, the full androgyny crossover has been a long time coming, as well.
The History of Androgyny
Although women began dressing androgynously in Europe’s Middle Ages (better known as Late Antiquity), in the United States, we can thank the First World War (better known as The Great War) for the beginnings of androgyny. At that time, while the men went off to war, women would alter men’s trousers in order to properly perform the factory jobs left vacant by the workers-turned-soldiers. During that time, the rise in popularity of such Hollywood starlets as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn — both photographed in an androgynous style in photos that would later become iconic — contributed to the rise in androgyny in high fashion.
While the elite fashionistas were pleased to incorporate pants into their couture fashion, wearing pants didn’t come back into fashion for bourgeoisie women until the 1960’s, when André Courrèges created the first pair of designer jeans for women.
There were still many restrictions in place about women wearing pants until the 1990’s. Believe it or not, it took that long for many of the laws on the books against women wearing pants in public to be repealed. In the 1970’s, Government Code Section 12947.5 was passed, which made it illegal for California to discriminate against women who wore pants. It wasn’t until 1993 that women were allowed to wear pants on the U.S. Senate floor, and it wasn’t until Hillary Clinton that US First Ladies were photographed wearing pants. Amazingly, though, there are still bylaws in many countries, including France & Malawi, that place restrictions on women wearing pants in public.
Androgyny in the 21st Century
Let’s now take a look at the 21st Century’s response to this fashion controversy of days gone by: the rise in gender-neutral fashion. For modern fashionistas, it’s not about women wearing pants while men wear skirts, it’s about men and women sharing the same pairs of pants and skirts.
One of the leaders of this brigade is a gender-neutral clothier who is billed as “Mr. Rachel Tutera” in “Girls” star Lena Dunham’s untitled documentary about the very subject. The fashion blogger-turned-queer-friendly celebrity, who lives in Brooklyn, designs suits that are just as gender-neutral, and Rachel says, in an interview, that this came about as more and more women began demanding clothes that were in line with their tomboy aesthetic yet were also distinctly feminine…a trend that eventually crossed over to the 21st Century male, as well.
Tutera’s rising popularity is indicative of the changing of the guard in both fashion and mainstream society as a whole: as LGBTQ issues come into the forefront, and various members on the sexuality spectrum are becoming accepted without regards to religious or cultural restrictions, the fashion models are starting to become just as representative of this new cultural identity. Cases in point include Slavic model Saskia De Brauw (a woman who modeled menswear in a recent Yves Saint Laurent fashion show), gender-neutral model Elliott Sanders (who models both menswear and women’s wear), and transgender model Andreja Pejić.
Androgyny: The New Fashion Normal
Fashion experts suggest that this trend in fashion is rising because fashion is no longer subscribing to the notion that clothes make one gender-normal. Gone are the days when androgyny involved simply putting on a boyish pair of pants — today’s gender-neutral fashion is, as Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele described it, “romantically flamboyant.” And no less of a fashion bible than Vogue has co-signed Michele’s vision for the future, which involves less color-blocking and more devil-may-care attitude in the approach of dress.
Perhaps, too, this is the reason behind the rise in androgyny: it isn’t so much about bucking cultural norms (though, in the United States, there have been several hints of androgyny and clothing crossover — most notably in pants — that existed prior to the 21st Century), or being gender-normative; rather, it’s about being deliberate, and yet accidental, in its gender-neutral bravery. After all, as has been pointed out several times in several ways, it wasn’t that long ago that one didn’t have the freedom to be oneself, be it in their sexuality or in their preferred method of dress.
In short, the old & new crossover trend of androgyny can be summed up as follows: if you dress the way you feel, you will become that which you dress as. The clothes, then, do make the man…or the woman.