by Molly Flaherty
Gone are the days when dresses were exclusively for girls and tuxedos were only worn by men. Gendered fashion is gradually becoming a thing of the past.
With John Lewis announcing its first gender-neutral clothing line in August, and River Island launching a non-binary collaborative collection last month, it’s time to accept that the fashion world is now taking steps towards gender-fluidity.
Surprisingly, the shift of androgyny into the mainstream has been on the horizon for over a century. When Coco Chanel debuted a collection including trousers for women in 1913, she paved the way for a new era of fashion. It marked a departure from the polarised garment range for men and women of the Victorian era, and while Chanel famously stated that she was not a feminist, the pioneering collection added momentum to the women’s suffrage movement. Chanel’s range suggested that women are just as entitled to comfort as men, and became a symbol of equality. Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn brought high fashion to Hollywood in the 1930s, pushing gender boundaries further with the first female tuxedos, whilst Yves Saint Laurent capitalised on the appetite for masculine-inspired garments, transforming female formalwear with the invention of cigarette trousers. Black tie choices for women were suddenly extended beyond lengthy gowns and high heels, breaking away from the cliché that fashion is a pain that women must endure.
By the latter half of the twentieth century, androgynous fashion was no longer exclusively for women. Musicians such as David Bowie and Prince, famous for their gender-fluid approaches to dressing, were celebrated for their unique stylistic choices, and continue to be heralded in the music and fashion world to equal degrees. With the 1990s came a new wave of music, and grunge fashion elevated androgynous style to a new audience. Kurt Cobain, in particular, broke down the stigma that androgyny was a style movement predominantly associated with LGBTQ+ culture, as individuals of all sexual orientations and genders attempted to emulate his look. ‘Guyliner’ and housedresses sneaked into male styling, but subsequently raised issues surrounding appropriation versus appreciation.
Concerns that gender fluid dressing would be accepted as an ‘edgy’ trend, but socially rejected as a genuine expression of individuality and identity, are still a hot topic of debate today.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of the diminished significance of gender binaries, in both the fashion world and wider society, is the rise in popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul’s rise to fame in the ’90s on the back of their single ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’ is an indication of the acceptance of drag in mainstream culture, and Drag Race has gained widespread recognition from the fashion industry for its high-fashion style design challenges and catwalk segments that mirror America’s Next Top Model. Guest judges such as Jeremy Scott, Gigi Hadid, and Chanel Iman have helped the show’s stars enter the world of couture, with season seven’s winner, Violet Chachki, modelling for Vogue Italia, and Carmen Carrera featuring in W magazine. Yet the queens most accepted by wider society are still only those that fit within traditional, gendered ideas of beauty. Milk, who defied gender normative conventions whilst on the show by combining masculine and feminine elements within their look, is the only exception to this rule, booking a Marc Jacobs ad in 2015. Present still is a belief that drag involves a straightforward transformation from a masculine to a feminine aesthetic, rather than an exploration of different facets of gender identity.
Finally, it seems that the high street has taken the lead of high fashion and embraced gender-neutral wear. John Lewis’s range currently only caters to children, with their labels reading ‘Boys & Girls/Girls & Boys up to age fourteen’. However, by specifically targeting the younger market still in developmental states, the foundations are laid for a future transition into genderless ranges for all ages. River Island x Ashish Gupta builds on the designer’s typical agender approach to design with fifteen key pieces consisting of dresses and loungewear made for all body types. Well-received so far, the collection combines the whimsical and the dreamy with elements of childhood, such as letter fridge magnets and sleepover attire, an aspect that the promotional video – depicting a couple unbound by the constraints of gender in their activities and their dress – fully captures. The novelty of the pieces, particularly slogan jumpers embroidered with phrases such as ‘sick of all this chic’ and ‘good in bed’ make it fun and appealing, a feature needed for such a pioneering high-street collection. River Island have cleverly bridged the gap between their usual offerings and Ashish’s previously bold high fashion collections that see men modelling dresses, sequins, and ornate jewellery.
Present still is a belief that drag involves a straightforward transformation from a masculine to a feminine aesthetic, rather than an exploration of different facets of gender identity.
Although Chanel’s original intentions back in 1913 weren’t political, the wider social impact of shifts in clothing trends shouldn’t be ignored. It is suggestive of the embrace of LGBTQ+ culture; the rise of feminism; growing equality between those of all and every gender. The removal of gender binaries in clothing – our visual mode of self-expression -is an indication of a move towards a more inclusive society, where our gender is no longer defined by a label stuck in the back of our t-shirts.