Are you a man, a woman, or an Alien?
deconstructing the gender binaries through the lens of fashion
Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, which you may have guessed if you saw me around campus wearing my A Room of One’s Own tote bag every single day. In her novel Orlando, she writes about a character who experiments with their self-expression over the course of 350 years, blurring our ideas of time, sexuality, and gender. They transform from a man to a woman throughout the novel whilst experimenting with the performance of dress, stating ‘it is often only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness.’
I believe this stands true even now - it seems the way we are expected to dress is decided for us by our society’s understanding of sex and gender. The masculine and the feminine are like unwritten scripts that subtly change through time, and we must all fulfil our distinct roles to perpetuate hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal beauty standards. For example, the epitome of masculine fashion in the 18th century was abundant lace, velvets, and silks, in rich dyes of purple and pink, as this was considered a regal luxury and proof of a higher-class status. Today, such colours and materials would be categorised into a feminine aesthetic, as for a modern society, intricate pink lacing rejects masculine ideals of physical strength. We are validated for boxing ourselves into categories and presenting our fashion in a way that is dominant and authoritative for men, and pretty and delicate (and thus submissive) for women. Today, if I chose to wear loose-fitting trousers, or cut my hair short, my femininity would be questioned, as I would be embracing an image traditionally associated with dominant masculinity and imitating the traits of a gender that is above my social standing. I would not be validated by society, as I would be considered as ‘less’ of a woman. But unlike sex, gender cannot be found in the body - we all have different relationships with our gender, our femininity, our masculinity, and everything in between. These rigid expectations of what it means to be a ‘real’ woman or man are inherently untrue, and reductive to who we are. Our gender identities cannot be defined by a universal set of looks and aesthetics, and I would love to see our fashion move away from these restrictive guidelines.
At the end of the film adaptation of Orlando, once the protagonist has transitioned into a woman, they are shown wearing trousers, even though trousers were considered a masculine item of clothing at the time. Their fashion challenged the roles of the gender binary, and showed us that our fashion choices shouldn’t have to align with what gender stereotypes tell us we should look like. Woolf’s novel inspired Rei Kawakubo, who introduced her Comme des Garcons Homme Plus show (Spring/ Summer 2020) as a ‘transformation and liberation through time’. Her style choices blended the masculine and feminine binaries; all the 39 looks in the collection combined trainers with pearl necklaces, and sleek bob haircuts that can neither be deemed masculine nor feminine. In the first look in the collection, the model flaunts bleached eyebrows, and a stark grey maxi dress, underneath a long overcoat which resembles a dress in itself, from the way it flows behind him as he walks. In looks 17 and 18, Kawakubo dressed the models in long shirts of pink and white, adorned with ruffles. This is contrasted with tight black trousers underneath, and a matching black blazer, which make the shirt glow. By blending the masculine and the feminine, every item in the look is illuminated, as delicately chosen and redolent of her free artistic expression. We know each piece is chosen out of her liberty and creativity - not out of the guidelines of what menswear and womenswear should look like.
There have been moments where I’ve felt like I was performing femininity, wearing the ‘prettiest’ or the tightest top instead of the one that I liked the most. Especially when I was younger, I never gave myself the time to realise what clothes I might like, since it was validating to wear what everyone else was wearing. I think that so often girls are taught to wear what will make them desirable, instead of exploring their individuality through their clothes. The patriarchy socially validates women if they attract heterosexual men, and the diet industry and fashion trends teach us that our beauty is integral to our personhood, and we must look a certain way to be able to take up space. Personally, it was in lockdown that I realised what clothes I truly liked to wear, as I was existing outside of the social structures designed to reward me for presenting heteronormative femininity. I realised what aspects of my identity were merely a performance of gender roles, and which aspects were truly an extension of myself. How we express our fashion should not be limited to the gender identities and beauty standards imposed upon us. A pivotal moment in fashion design that challenged these beauty standards was Yves St Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo suit in 1966. It presented an alternative to the evening gown and was the first of its kind to gain traction in the fashion industry. The suit has always represented the hyper-masculine, allowing men to embody dominant ideals of manhood such as authority and competitiveness. However, by wearing the tuxedo, women can rewrite the rigid expectations of femininity. In the late 70s and 80s, there was a surge in the popularity of female ‘power dressing’; this suit enabled women to establish their authority in a day-to-day setting and reclaim some of the patriarchal privilege and power that had been used against them.
Rockstars in the 60s and 70s also challenged the idea that the suit was a defining feature of masculinity. David Bowie explored various personas throughout his music career, leaving everyone unsure if he was a ‘man, a woman, or an alien’. My favourite era of his was the Ziggy Stardust era in the early 70s – he became a camp, sexually liberated rockstar, defined by his bright red mullet, shaved eyebrows, eclectic flares, and multicoloured jumpsuits. In the new Bowie biopic Moonage Daydream, there was a clip from one of Bowie’s interviews where he was dressed in a red and blue matching suit, glittery eye makeup, dangly earrings and bright platform shoes. The interviewer asked him if his shoes were ‘man shoes, woman shoes, or bisexual shoes’, and Bowie replied, ‘they’re just shoe shoes, silly!’ When we take away the gendered associations of clothes, we have so much more artistic freedom in what we can wear. Bowie said that fashion and makeup helped him make his music three-dimensional, as he could visually embody his lyrics instead of just singing them. He also heavily influenced the campy and androgynous glam rock fashion wave, alongside so many more artists of the time like Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, whom all strayed from assumptions of how men or women should look.
I think that fashion should be an escape, a way for us to explore our self-expression and feel comfortable in our identity. You don’t need to categorize yourself: your fashion doesn’t have to slot into a consistently ‘masculine’, or ‘feminine’ or ‘androgynous’ style. It can just look like you, however you would like to express yourself that day. And from there, you can explore your authentic self, realising what that is and what it has the potential to be. An example of this personal mode of self-expression is found in the work of Claude Cahun, a French surrealist photographer, sculptor, and writer who stated in their book Disavowals, ‘Shuffle the cards Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me’. They functioned as both the subject and the object in their photos, exploring multiple personas and using style and clothing to explore their gender identity. In I am in training do not kiss me (1927), they are pictured with slick-back hair, lipstick and drawn-on nipples, ambiguously combining overtly masculine and feminine aesthetics.
Finding out our identity and what we want to wear should be exciting and liberating, not something dictated to us by gender binaries. For me, my gender identity feels ever-changing, and so my fashion is constantly changing, too. Since February 2021, London Fashion week has stopped separating menswear from womenswear, and designers are starting more and more to blend the two. Hopefully, soon, the clothes we wear can be free from these distinctions completely.