Every day we dress ourselves in sartorial statements. Whether we know it or not, or desire it or not, what we wear is an expression of identity. Recently, growing awareness of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity has led to the questioning of the complex role clothing and fashion play in gender expression and social perceptions of gendered bodies. For generations, fashion kept the stereotyping of clothing, responding to and partly setting society’s expectations for gender roles: dresses for girls and trousers for boys, for instance. Many brands still uphold this binary; Chloé, for example, maintains, from fabric to design, a conventional definition of femininity.
More recently, brands such as Comme des Garçons and Saint Laurent have moved towards the non-normative and unconventional as creative strategies. They delve into androgyny and unisex clothing, turning gender from a demarcation tool into an endless, unbound space for self-expression. The pushing of social norms shows how willing the industry is to genuinely explore the gender spectrum. Launched in October 2009, Candy magazine marked this tendency of blurring boundaries and embracing the fluidity of gender, and applauded the LGBT community in all its glory, with James Franco in drag on one of it covers. Their featuring of men dressed as women without being overly feminine underlines the gender spectrum and challenges the common expectations of transgender individuals.
Despite the fashion industry pushing the threshold of acceptability and attempting to dismantle stereotypical gender roles, many issues are still there. The Channel 4 documentary, Born Risky, considers gender identity performed through style and fashion choices. Grayson Perry interviews EJ, a fashion dress historian, who refuses to wear a dress, knowing how “important clothes are to constructing his masculine identity.” By wearing this style of clothing, he would be “the wrong gender.” This correlation of being dressed with being a gender underlines the lingering rigidity of discourse around the clothed body.
Designing and styling are very often visibly infused with traditional understandings of the body, risking to reproduce ideas of an “ideal” gender. A dress is a stereotypical piece of clothing for a woman, thus allowing society to question an individual identified as a man when wearing one. When the fashion world refuses gender attribution as a driver of aesthetics, the implication of a “correct” gender disappears. Destabilising as this might sound, it is worth noting that fashion plays an essential role in socialising individuals into their right gender, affirming or disavowing the direction individuals take in expressing identity.
Gender-neutral designs and androgyny in fashion are certainly liberating, but it is important to see whether this is another face of the same coin. The vector of power is the same, regardless of the content: telling women and men to wear female and male clothing is on the same ethical ground with telling them they can (or should) wear gender-ambiguous designs. In both cases, individuals are offered recipes for the understanding of their own bodies and selves.
Nevertheless, refusal and resistance are the step stones towards necessary de-classification and subversion of the relation we have with clothes. Denying sartorial markers of gender both requires and offers freedom – the kind of freedom that has many people asking “is this dress really made for my body?” rather than accepting the conventional knowledge that their body was made for that dress.
Words: Louise Squire
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu