Gender Expression through Fashion: Past, Present and Future
For centuries, clothing has been inherently gendered, a great force in the way that men and women have reaffirmed their respective masculinity and femininity. Historically, failure to subscribe to societal normalities of gendered fashion has resulted in dangerous repercussions. Thus, the idea of someone dressing in clothing that is not traditionally aligned to their sex assigned at birth has been highly stigmatized, often aligning with the homophobic and transphobic ideals that have plagued our societies for ages. In the United States, people began breaking out of this mold beginning in the early 20th century, exploring new avenues of fashion. They were met with much hostility and criticism over their clothing choices. Then in the 70s and 80s, we start to see bigger stars joining this movement, with notable figures such as Prince and David Bowie experimenting with gender fluid styles.
The leaders of androgynous fashion
LGBTQ+ people and people of color have been at the forefront of this movement for as long as it has existed. Members of our society have repressed these groups, silencing their voices and thus preventing this movement from gaining significant traction. As social and political movements have progressed in granting marginalized groups greater freedom and safety in the United States, it has become more common to see people exploring gender fluid styles. This followed after many years of work from activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who fought against racism, transphobia, and homophobia. Their contributions are the reasons why we can even begin to discuss the freedom of identity and expression as it exists in the fashion world today.
What does this mean?
When I talk about gender fluid or gender neutral fashion, I am not only referring to basic pieces, labeled as neither feminine nor masculine. Rather, I am talking about flexibility in fashion. That is, the ability to explore any fashion style, whether it is feminine, masculine, neutral, or a combination of styles, regardless of one’s gender identity. Degendering fashion is a way for people to express their individuality, unsubscribing from the cookie cutter ideas of what fashion means and looks like. It is a means for people to explore their gender, especially for those who do not identify as cisgender. If we successfully normalize these trends, we may facilitate a much safer environment for all people to explore more fashion styles. This does not mean that everyone has to or will take the liberties to wear gender-nonconforming clothing, but it does open people’s minds to this dress and give freedom to those who do choose these styles.
There still exist many barriers today preventing us from moving away from traditional gender roles in fashion. Gender norms remain an integral part of our American society. Notably, toxic masculinity holds firm in the fashion industry. We can attribute this to the conservative beliefs that many people still have regarding gender and sexuality. Brands, catering their products to their audiences, remain hesitant to explore and promote gender fluid clothing styles for this reason. It has only been in recent years that movements challenging standards of masculinity have gained traction, with great numbers of people taking to social media and using their voices to call for the freedom of gender expression. Some notable influencers who participate in gender fluid fashion include Ady Del Valle, Jazzmyne Jay, Alok V Menon, and so many others.
One instance of someone exploring their femininity through fashion in recent years was Harry Styles as he appeared on the December 2020 cover of Vogue. He is pictured wearing a blue, floor length dress. Because of his fame and his former traditional masculine style, this photo release was met with tremendous feedback, both positive and negative, from fans and strangers alike. We must recognize the fact that much of Styles’ popularity in this movement is attributed to his white privilege. Therefore, while this photoshoot facilitated productive conversations surrounding gender expression, we cannot give Harry Styles all of the credit for breaking toxic masculinity standards as many sources have been doing. There are plenty of other LGBTQ+ people and people of color who have been pushing these bounds for years.
Prince, for example, gained much attention for his dress and his gender nonconformity in the 1980s. He was known for his stand-out styles, often pictured wearing feminine clothing and makeup. With his combination of high heels and groomed facial hair, he transcended the strict gender rules existing in the 80s to embrace androgyny. We can also thank Lil Nas X, Lenny Kravitz, Young Thug, and all of the other individuals who have broken toxic masculinity standards and pushed gender boundaries past a point that we as a society have ever before been comfortable with.
Stars defying gender traditions through fashion:
How can you explore gender nonconforming styles?
There are many ways that current trends delve into gender fluid fashion. Such styles include longer men’s hairstyles, such as mullets. In recent years, we have seen men branching into the beauty world, wearing makeup that ranges anywhere from a light concealer to a full face. They have also taken to incorporating crop tops, purses, and heeled boots into their wardrobes.
Women are now often wearing oversized clothing, combating traditional trends that highlight feminine silhouettes. It has also become more common for women to wear formal menswear, such as blazers and slacks. Beyond clothing, some women are choosing to embrace their body hair, rejecting the notions that women should be fully shaved.
Beyond this, there exists a great opportunity to mix and match feminine and masculine styles and create a more androgynous look. For example, someone may pair a form-fitting shirt with baggy trousers, wear a button up blouse with a lot of jewelry, or be creative in combining different colors and textures together. Brighter colors and silkier fabrics lean more feminine while darker, neutral colors and more structures fabrics lean masculine. For a very simple look, basic pieces, such as plain t-shirts and jeans, will always be a great and easy way to don a gender neutral outfit. If you are looking for ways to explore gender nonconforming fashion, these things prove great starting points.
Moving forwards, we need to work to destigmatize gender fluid fashion. Even as it is becoming more and more common to see androgynous pieces on the runway and the red carpet, people still face criticism for gender fluid styles in everyday life. I look forward to the day where everyone may feel safe and confident in their identities and have the complete freedom to express themselves as they wish through their style and dress.
Featured image courtesy of Vogue.