Blurring Gender Distinctions: Menswear Now
The Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn once famously told Calvin Klein: ‘Any time I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say: “Try one. Try a skirt.”’
In fashion, this idea is no longer new. Jean Paul Gaultier put a man in a skirt back in 1984. And at this year’s Pitti Uomo, ‘the most important event for menswear’, two Japanese designers swept the floor with ankle-length skirts. But mixing menswear and womenswear is still making the news. ‘What’s different about fashion on the catwalk’, Sara McAlpine wrote in Elle, ‘is the way they’re blending traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ tropes’. It is ‘bold’, ‘new’, and ‘unfamiliar’.
Androgyny is more than men wearing skirts. Simply swapping two binaries can hardly be said to be blurring the boundaries. Something subtle, more creative, is happening; it came to the fore in June. Kim Jones at Dior, John Galliano at Maison Margiela, and Raf Simons began using the craftsmanship, fabric, and symbols of women’s couture, but for menswear collections, changing the discourse. Resisting a focus on what is for ‘him’ and what is for ‘her’, the designers placed greater importance on artistic expression. We shouldn’t be asking what these clothes are- we need to be asking what these clothes can do.
Speaking on a podcast released to the press, John Galliano described his work as ‘the highest form of dressmaking, but for men […] I hope it’s going to define a new sensuality.’ Men’s clothes have long been compelled to disregard craft; since the end of the 19th century, the requirement of menswear is that it be useful. Galliano’s collection has been marked as the first haute couture collection for men. It displays a luxury cutting usually relegated to women’s ateliers. The eye is sent sliding down lines of lapels, the contours of coats – even the fabric. Galliano has brought over the bias cut, mastered for his women’s aesthetic. Rarely found in menswear, this cut yields natural elasticity and greater fluidity. Raf Simons also displayed a masterful use of fabric. Everything except the odd piece was made from duchess satin. The coats, cut long, straight and wide, were literally dazzling showing that menswear can break out of constraining utility.
We shouldn’t be asking what these clothes are- we need to be asking what these clothes can do.
Both designers mastered their skills at Dior. ‘Dior is a couture house’, wrote Olivia Singer in Vogue, with ‘working ateliers, a storied history of craft, and ample resources to facilitate its execution.’ Kim Jones, in his debut collection for Dior, used all. His clothes are exquisitely decorated, recalling a time when menswear was freely embellished. Fred Davis, in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (1992), explains that men used to wear abundant lace, decorated shoes, and elaborate hats until the 18th century. Embellishment was severed from menswear with the guillotine – the fall of the aristocracy in France. It’s been plain ever since, with ‘richness and decoration’ remaining the preserve of women’s couture. Jones’s adornment was ‘breathtaking’, wrote Singer. Feathered flowers by Lemarié were pressed beneath a glaze of transparent vinyl on a jacket. There was an intricate blouse, embroidered with lace. Tank tops and trench coats were printed with elaborate patterns of angels, branches, and birds. The clothes are resisting ‘the most important event in the history of dressing’: the male abandonment of beauty.
Coco Chanel once told Business Insider that, ‘I gave women a sense of freedom. I gave them back their bodies…’ The same can be said for the menswear collections. With Galliano and Kim Jones, bodies were strikingly visible. Garments were often transparent, made up of mesh. Necklines were often low cut, whilst coats and jackets were modelled with the torso bare underneath. The garments were shaped to emphasise form, evoking the move in the ‘30s – back then ‘men realized’, said designer Alan Fusser, ‘that clothing should not […] hide the natural lines of the body.’ In all collections, trousers had high waists. Blazers by Dior drew in by the ribs, and Galliano’s models wore close-fitting stockings. His use of corsetry was especially striking. Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has described using corsets in art and advertising to tap into its associations with female erotic beauty. Transferring corsets to menswear, Galliano hopes his collection will define ‘a new sexuality.’ Worn on the outside, not underneath, contours are sharply defined. The corsets tie up the question he asks on the podcast: ‘What does sexy mean today?’ It means man’s figure, as erotic as women’s.
For the designers, surprisingly, gender is removed from the discussion. Yes, Kim Jones gave his theory in the Dior Homme showroom, that couture should transfer to menswear. But ‘I’d call it romantic’, he told Vogue, ‘rather than feminine.’ Nor does ‘masculine’ come into it. The press notes were headed Dior, not ‘Dior Homme’. Raf Simons’ has shown similar disregard for distinctions: his debut collection for Calvin Klein last year was the first time the house showed men’s and womenswear in the same show. So the collections do more than transfer ‘feminine’ to ‘masculine’. Gender is diminished in pursuit of expression – not just for the artist, but for the men themselves.