Gender-less fashion has become common through the years, hitting display windows of clothing stores, becoming the highlight on the runway, making it to the collections of fashion brands, and enveloping street wear.
But androgynous fashion is more than just women wearing trousers and tuxedos, or men wearing skirts and tight jeans. It goes beyond cross-dressing.
To know androgynous fashion is to learn where it came from, how it evolved through the years, and what marked its evolution.
Androgynous fashion is the result of a decades-long battle that has been waged against the gender constraints imposed by society. While it seems this fashion school of thought is a modern, contemporary concept, it actually goes way back, dating back to the time when people made attempts to cut the chains of social rules and overcome gender boundaries.
In the early 1800s, fashion was restricted based on gender—the man must wear masculine outfits, while women must wear something feminine. Never should a woman wear trousers, which was traditionally male apparel. In 1793, things changed with the introduction of Vivandiere, the women attached to military troops who acted as sutlers and canteen keepers.
Epitome of androgyny
They were probably the epitome of androgyny. While serving the troops, the Vivandiere wore the female version of the regiment’s uniform—tight-fitting jackets and a knee-length skirt, worn over striped, wide-cut pants. Completing their look were a brimmed hat and a tonnelet or a brandy barrel strapped over their shoulders.
In that same era, women activists wore trousers to express their stand on feminism. Puerto Rican activist Luisa Capetillo was probably the first model of androgynous fashion. A writer and an activist who fought for workers and women’s rights, she challenged the societal norm by wearing what was considered taboo fashion back then. She became the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear pants in public.
This served as a precedent for the blurring boundaries of traditional gender roles during the World War I. During that time, fashion mavens Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel introduced trousers such as beach pajamas and horse-riding attire for women. While the fashion brand has been associated with little black dresses in modern times, Chanel pioneered trousers for women at a time when women toyed with the idea of leaving restricting Victorian societal norms behind. Throwing lace necklines and petticoats aside, pants and masculine silhouettes for women began invading the fashion industry.
Hollywood joins in
Hollywood glamour caught onto the suffrage movement. Actresses Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich shared a taste of fierce independence, shaking the traditional society with their androgyny and different views on femininity. Vowing to never allow their gender to dictate how they should live their lives, the two legendary actresses embraced their being a woman to the core. Hepburn was seen wearing “Brooks Brothers shirts bought from a secret girls-only counter at the back of the New York store,” while Dietrich attended a 1932 film premiere in a tuxedo, creating a ripple effect on the Hollywood scene.
Come 1950s, the androgynous movement seemed to be halted, with career housewives and suburban motherhood making their entrance. But a decade after, the women’s liberation movement and the Stonewall riots shook the fashion scene once again. These political and social events have contributed to how people viewed fashion, and influenced trends and styles.
Challenging the norms, Yves Saint Laurent offered a radical new fashion style, leading to the birth of the first tuxedo for women. Known as Le Smoking, it became a symbol of female emancipation in the 1960s. It gave a new silhouette for working women, with pieces that spoke of practicality and combined with elegance.
Moving on to music
While the fashion revolution was often associated with women, their gender counterparts also played a role. Men caught the androgyny fashion bug and tried to break free from the gender chains. During this period, women embraced masculinity, while men asserted their feminine side—without their sexuality coming into question.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the music scene. Take for instance, legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix who was known for his paisley coats and velvet flares, with patterns on his blouses eliciting psychedelic visuals. Then, there was Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger who performed in poet blouses and hip-skimming jeans, emphasizing his small hips as he swiveled to the beat.
And who could forget music legend David Bowie? Believing that clothes were a powerful tool of self-expression, Bowie created different personas (from mod teenager, to a hippie with dishevelled curls), by changing his styles dramatically. Probably his most famous “alter ego” was Ziggy Stardust—a flame-haired character with shaved eyebrows, an eye patch, vibrant make-up, and tight colorful costumes.
Androgyny reached a new height with the arrival of Prince and Grace Jones in the 70s. If we may say, Prince and Grace Jones were the ultimate icons of androgyny.
Prince was a contradiction. He was a hetero man who cut an effeminate silhouette with his slender hips, thin moustache, and delicate frame. He was not what people would call a traditional masculine figure. Meanwhile, with her flat-top hair, chiseled facial features and toned physique, Grace Jones exuded a certain masculinity, balanced with a touch of femininity.
A different kind of anrodgyny
The following decade there was a lull in the androgynous movement, until rocker Kurt Cobain entered the picture in the 1990s. He personified a different of kind of masculinity. Sporting long-blonde hair (sometimes prettified with tiaras), his beautiful features emphasized with eyeliner, and donning babydoll dresses, he rocked the grunge shows. The rock legend and his band Nirvana brought to the forefront the idea that men don’t need to be always macho. Sure, big boys do cry over pain.
Androgyny reared its head once more in 2015, when creative director Alessandro Michele dressed male models in chic blouses and shrunken-sleeve pea coats while YSL had their male models sashay down the runway in high heels and pink fur coats.
Meanwhile, model Ruth Bell shaved her hair to a crew cut, alpha male David Beckham proudly showed up in skirts, rapper Young Thug wore a sheer tulle dress, and Lil B donned chandelier earrings—it was all about the fashion style of the past coming back and evolving.
In the Philippines, the androgynous movement slowly gained momentum, reaching its high this year, with established Filipino fashion designers like Rajo Laurel making their own statements. Rajo presented his androgynous collection—featuring the gentleman look for the ladies (menswear staples such as pea coats, tuxedoes and lounge pants) during the product launch of a tech company earlier this year.
More and more fashion brands find themselves gearing towards gender-neutral dressing. So much so that some talent management agencies are even opening the door to models with androgynous features, like Jullian Culas, a 23-year-old with long legs and an androgynously-skinny figure who models both menswear and womenswear of various brands.
Lanvin Homme creative director Lucas Ossendrijver says it all when he says that androgynous fashion is all about “losing the labels.” If we take function and individuality, androgynous fashion style is definitely not just a novel idea at the fashion shows. It’s a conversation that goes beyond clothing, delving into deconstructing traditional conventions and following where the society is headed.