Androgyny and Male Exceptionalism 

December 11, 2015

Clarice Brough

Looking back in time, it would seem that androgyny has been around for a while. Joan of Arc and the writer Radcliffe Hall might be viewed as early proponents. However when Coco Chanel designed the first trouser suit for women in the 1920s, she did away with the tradition of ascribing strict gender distinctions to clothing (no accident surely that this followed the changes wrung out by the First World War). But has this kind of fluidity in fashion leaked into the men’s market? Will androgyny ever be as acceptable for men as it is for women?

In the 60s and 70s rigid demarcation of gender seemed to be lessening in menswear, too, but this trend was phased out by the 80s. More recently, however, high profile celebrities have been pictured wearing what would traditionally be labelled “women’s clothing.” Namely, we recall Kanye West during Paris Fashion Week in a pair of mid-calf, heeled velvet boots and Pharrell Williams in an oversized, bright pink Celine ‘Crombie’ coat. In a similar vein, Alessandro Michele, the new creative director of Gucci wowed his audience with a stellar first menswear collection. It included a ‘dreamy ambiguity’ with long-haired, fine-featured male and female models in an array of gender neutral designs, such as a sheer red lace top on one male model, or female models in traditionally boyish suits. Indeed, just days before Gucci’s show, Prada had had a menswear show at which guests found each of their chairs printed with a ‘manifesto’ that questioned the role of traditional gender stereotypes in the fashion industry. Rick Owens has also been known for an androgynous aesthetic, with collections containing men in dresses and long flowing silhouettes that blur the lines of a fixed gender ideal. But will androgyny ever really translate into sales?

When we look at body image rather than fashion, there does seem to be evidence of a shift with increased demand for flatter chests  in women and males who have a more feminine look. Is this a precursor to the changes we might see in clothing or simply a transient trend in modeling? Male androgyny still appears to be the exception. We can speculate why this is the case (perhaps it is just that men’s options for the office are by tradition more restrictive) but in a world where there seems to be a growing plurality of masculinities, surely it is time for change? Fashion is an ever-evolving cultural thermometer: not too long ago mixing casual and business attire would not have been considered fashionable or even socially acceptable. When we envisage futuristic clothing in science fiction and fantasy it often seems to be more gender neutral. On this basis, perhaps we can expect a shift.

Fashion is one of the great freedoms of our society and needs to be promoted as such. We need our men to meet us half way with this!