GENDER neutral (androgyny) clothing is in fashion. Masculine tailoring, cropped hair, trilbys and brogues are just some elements of the tomboy look. When Brad and Angelina walked the BAFTA red carpet in ‘his and hers’ St Laurent tuxedos recently, they were the embodiment of the look. The roll call of female celebrities rocking a tux has included Alexa Chung, the Olsen Twins, Rihanna, Janelle Monae, Mossy and Beyonce. After a decade of the dress, the return of trousers and the trouser suit has reintroduced the subtle charms of menswear on women.
Heidi Slimane’s ready-to-wear debut at Saint Laurent last year, a tribute to Helmut Newton’s iconic image of ‘Le Smoking’, typifies the allure of a sharp suit on female curves. After too much bare flesh, the subversive understatement of masculine styling on a woman looks fresh and edgy. On the flip side, males who model as women include the delicate, willowy Andrej Pejic, a Serbian/Austrian, and Lea T, the Givenchy muse (who featured on the cover of Love magazine kissing Kate Moss).
Androgyny is a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics, and in clothing it has a long history, originating in ancient Greece, when women weren’t allowed to perform publicly. Males performed all female parts, and the ban on female actors was perpetuated by the Christian faith. All Shakespeare’s dramatic heroines, during his lifetime, were portrayed by young men, but later, during the Restoration, there was a vogue for women playing male rakes and young boys. Peter Pan has traditionally been played by a girl.
Later, in the English music hall, actresses such as vaudevillian, Vesta Tilley, cross-dressed for the titillation of Victorian audiences. But the practice was only acceptable in the theatre — even if the divine Sarah Bernhardt had appeared in pants, they just weren’t considered acceptable for ‘respectable’ women in polite society. Even in contemporary society, androgyny has been most prominent in fashion and entertainment: think of Candy Darling, David Bowie, Boy George, and Annie Lennox. Films have portrayed some fascinating, gender-skewed characters: Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Tilda Swinton in Orlando and Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.
Today, contemporary champions of androgyny, such as Swinton, Stella Tennant and Emanuelle Alt (editor of French Vogue), have popularised boy/girl style. They have a rich lineage of role models: Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Twiggy, Charlotte Rampling, Patti Smith, Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, KD Lang and even Madonna. Current androgynous models, such as Casey Legler (who models as a ‘man’) and Saskia de Brauw (who models Saint Laurent’s menswear), typify the trend. Legler told Time magazine: “I understand signifiers. We’re social creatures and we have a physical language of communicating with each other. But it would be a really beautiful thing if we could all just wear what we wanted, without it meaning something.”
Subverting gender roles isn’t simple — women appropriating men’s clothing have often been condemned: 2,000 years ago, St Paul said that women in male dress were an abomination and this attitude was still in place at the start of the 20th century, when actresses, and other women of ‘dubious sexual morality,’ such as Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville West, were condemned for wearing pants. As Gloria Steinem said: “nothing makes men more anxious than for a woman to be masculine.” In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood beauties Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall sported trousers, but not to universal approval — in 1932, the Parisian chief of police tried to ban the visiting Dietrich from wearing trousers in public, arguing that it would corrupt the weak-minded.
Androgyny became mainstream in the 1920s, after World War 1, when the slaughter of a generation of young men, and the erosion of traditional lives for young women (no husbands to marry or homes to tend) meant that rigid, defined gender roles dissolved, or became more fluid. The flapper fashion of the era, with its strong, linear silhouette, lack of curves, and cropped, bobbed or shingled hair was liberating for young women and they indulged their new freedoms, including drink, drugs and promiscuity, to a degree unthinkable for their corseted and conservative Edwardian mothers. For the first time, women’s clothing enjoyed the same comfort and functionality as men’s — that was revolutionary. The designer responsible was Coco Chanel, who scandalised society when she adapted sailor’s bell-bottoms as ‘yachting pants’ and borrowed her male lover’s jackets. A true fashion revolutionary, Chanel borrowed from men’s wardrobes to create her uncluttered, elegant style.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that trousers for women became acceptable and fashionable, thanks to sexual liberation and the striking white YSL trouser-suit Bianca Jagger wore at her wedding. Saint Laurent injected both sex and subversion into the tuxedo, when he created ‘Le Smoking’, a female version of the male evening suit. Here was a new creature, a sexually adventurous and provocative woman who pushed at the boundaries of femininity and propriety. She was strong, sexually adventurous (courtesy of the pill) and financially independent (thanks to her career), and conferred trousers with an allure.
The 1960s was the second explosion of androgyny as a fashion force: in the era of flower power and revolution, both sexes rebelled against the conservative, rigid gender of their parents. Young men grew their hair and adopted feminised styles, including frilly shirts and velvet coats, inspired by the pouting, preening and sexually ambiguous Mick Jagger. Girls cropped their manes and dieted their curves into submission, inspired by Twiggy, the super-skinny teenage model, who weighed six and a half stone and whose rail-thin, flat-chested, asexual figure became the desirable body shape of the day.
How does fashion express gender? While dress can reinforce the physical differences between men and women, it can also reflect the social differences. In times of social upheaval and reassessment, cultural norms, such as gender-appropriate dress codes and behaviour, can also get turned on their head. Fashion reflects how we present ourselves to the wider world: the escapism of fashion — dressing as a princess one day and a tomboy the next — allows a woman (even superficially) to change something that was for so long a biological absolute. Men and women will never be the same, and distinctive masculine and feminine clothes will never become obsolete, but mixing things up by relaxing sexual stereotypes is stimulating and even slightly naughty.
Women have incorporated almost every imaginable masculine element into their clothing, while men have been far more reticent in adopting female influences. Androgyny promises greater freedom for individuals to express both the masculine and feminine elements of themselves equally — it is avant garde, eternally chic and always slightly subversive.