Fashion is full of buzzwords. Sayings and phrases that brands and designers adopt to signal that they’ve got their finger on the pulse of what’s trending both inside and outside the industry. Recently, these have included things like ‘sustainability’, ‘greenwashing’ and ‘upcycling’. However, another you might have heard of is ‘gender-fluid’ fashion.
Gender-fluid fashion is clothing that doesn’t ascribe to binary notions of gender, that’s to say, it doesn’t adhere to traditional ideas of what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Harris Reed, a gender-fluid fashion designer (you might know him best for dressing Harry Styles for his American Vogue cover shoot) summed up gender-fluid fashion in a recent interview as: “offering an alternate way of being, crossing and merging masculine and feminine”.
Certainly, gender-fluid fashion is having a moment right now. From Styles’ Vogue shoot, to Kid Cudi performing on Saturday Night Live in a dress and the #femboy hashtag on TikTok, gender-fluid fashion seems to have exploded onto the scene at lighting speed. “It’s becoming less taboo to try and redefine masculinity,” says Antonis Daikos, a PhD student at the London College of Fashion researching gender-neutral fashion. “The benefit of people like Harry Styles experimenting is that it showcases to a broad audience how fashion is heading in a more non-binary and gender-neutral direction.” However, many trends in fashion dissipate as quickly as they arrive. Will gender-fluid fashion be any different?
Firstly, despite how it looks, it’s important to realise that experimenting with gender identity and testing binary notions of gender through clothing has actually existed for thousands of years. One of the earliest examples of this was in ancient Greek theatre, where men often dressed in women’s clothing to play female roles (though this was primarily because women were banned from participating in the theatre). About 2,000 years later, in the English Renaissance theatre, we again see male actors playing female roles in Shakespeare plays and this experimentation with gender continues in Shakespearean performance to this day.
By and large, throughout history, publicly experimenting with gender through clothing has only been viewed as an acceptable practice for cis-gendered (and usually heterosexual) men – those who have held the power in society. However, if we look closely, there are several examples of women borrowing from men too. In the 16th century, there’s evidence of Venetian courtesans wearing men’s undergarments beneath their clothing, allegedly due to a need “to switch from one instant to the next, from simulacrum of respectable lady to enticing gamine, free to move about the city in disguise”. This encapsulates the beauty of experimenting with clothing that isn’t bound by binary notions of gender – it allows the wearer to take on multiple different roles and characters within their daily lives. Fast forward to the 19th century, and British women who had travelled to the Ottoman Empire started wearing the şalvar (what we might now call harem pants), a garment they had seen whilst abroad and was worn by men and women alike. To British women, “the şalvar quickly became a symbol of freedom because they observed that Ottoman women had more rights than British women did.”
However, it was the music industry of the 20th century that saw gender-fluid fashion thrust into the public eye properly for the first time. The era’s biggest icons, like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Mick Jagger and Prince, have all become known for their – what was at the time – daring experimentation with clothing that didn’t adhere to traditional ideas of masculinity. But despite these instances helping bring gender-fluid fashion into the mainstream, there has largely remained a contradiction in society when it comes to who gets to experiment with clothing and gender in this way. While it’s become the norm for women to dress androgynously and wear ‘masculine’ clothing like trousers and suits, there’s still a stigma attached to the idea of men dressing like women. The novelist Ian McEwan summed this contradiction up neatly in his 1978 novel The Cement Garden: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short…because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading…because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.” This idea that to be feminine is to be less is still deeply ingrained into society, hence the ability of something like Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue to cause shock and even outrage.
But these outdated ideas appear, at least in part, to be changing. Along with Styles, there are a whole host of other men who have been trading in their trousers and ties for something more feminine; in 2016 Jaden Smith appeared in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 womenswear campaign wearing a skirt; singer Yungblud has become known for his experimentation with female clothing, saying that wearing dresses makes him feel “sexy”; and in March actor Jacob Elordi appeared on the cover of Man About Town in a corset and earrings. Since fashion reflects what’s happening in society, these examples perhaps hint at a slow but steady shift in how we view and approach traditional ideas of gender identity.
Julia Robson, a fashion journalist of over 25 years, says: “Fashion trends always reflect what’s going on culturally, and music and fashion especially have always been interlinked.” Robson highlights how K-pop stars in particular have contributed towards normalising a more feminine aesthetic for men. She adds: “There’s something coming out of South Korea right now called ‘soft masculinity’. You only have to look at bands like BTS to see it and it’s really changing perceptions of what’s quintessentially masculine and feminine.”
However, it’s also important to consider the influence of social media. TikTok is an app that’s truly shaping the modern cultural landscape and this applies to the subject of gender-fluidity too. If you’re a user of the app, chances are you’ve encountered the #femboy hashtag. With over 800 million views, the #femboy community has become a digital safe space for teenage boys – of all sexualities and gender identities – to explore and experiment with their feminine sides through fashion, and it’s just one of the many ways that men today are helping re-direct the conversation around what it means to be masculine.
But is gender-fluid fashion here to stay? Robson is sceptical, but she believes that the power lies in the hands of the younger generation. “I think the majority of the masses are still uncomfortable with it," she says. "There’s still a way to go but I think Gen-Z are far more accepting and they’ll demand change.” Daikos, however, is more optimistic. He adds: “If we consider how the younger generation discuss gender and sexuality, I think it’s going to become an easier conversation for consumers and designers, and this will be reflected in the fashions to come. There are already some serious designers contributing a lot to this conversation. So I don’t think it’s just a passing trend – I think we’ll be seeing this for the foreseeable future.”
Credit photos: Vogue.com
Written by Robyn Schaffer