I think it’s uncontroversial to claim that gender has been integral to fashion since it’s very creation. Garments have historically been essential expressions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ in order to fit contemporary standards of a ‘man’ or ‘woman’. In fact, the semiotic language of clothing has become so ingrained in society, a stick figure in a triangle skirt is enough to tell us which toilet to use. Yet, in a time where such binary categories of gender have come under intense scrutiny, why should clothes on a stick figure have the authority to dictate who can enter a bathroom?
If we were to take Judith Butler’s assertion that gender is a social performance, high fashion takes this performance to the catwalk and turns it into a fine art.
Femininity and masculinity are effectively determined by society (fashion perhaps being one of the most ritualistic means by which rigid gendered norms are constructed). Though often limiting the scope for gender expression, the backlog of gendered clothing makes for an interesting material history to play with. Fashion has the potential to disrupt all norms that have preceded directly because it also has the power to enforce them.
Charles Jeffrey is a pioneer of this innately rebellious attitude towards gender and its relationship to fashion. His brand ‘Loverboy’ (named after a night he hosted to fund his MA) pulses at its core with a high dose of queer culture and the freedom of unbridled nightlife–taking the playful gender dialogue from the club to the catwalk. Loverboy’s first collection propelled Jeffrey into the list of young British designers to watch (voted emerging Menswear Designer of the Year at the 2017 British Fashion Awards) and saw him swiftly absorbed into the plethora of cult brands featured at Dover street market. Last year, Topshop acknowledged the designer’s potential by inviting him to design a series of T-Shirts to celebrate LGBTQ+ month. The high-street giant even embraced the brands agendered vision and marketed the collection as a unisex. The T-shirts featured provocative artworks by contemporary artists with dialogues on the back including Jeffery’s musings on the ‘right to Gender recognition’. They sold out within weeks.
Evocative of early Westwood, Jeffrey’s creative voice distinctively reflects a generation unwilling to accept a characterless dress code of pink skirts for girls and blue trousers for boys. Despite being listed as a menswear brand, Jeffrey fully embraces the ‘co-ed’ runway–casting calls being put out to any ‘queer’ Londoner with a story. The eclectic nature of the clothes (ranging from oversized knitwear to Elizabethan pantaloons) in their costume like decadence are able to escape the constraints of normative and traditionally gendered fashion. The surrealism of proportion and shape creates the figure of a new sort of body which no longer serves the distinction of ‘male’ or ‘female’. The almost immediate success and popularity of Loverboy illustrates the thirst of both the industry and the consumer for designers who will toy with fashion through a playful disregard of conventional gender norms.
Yes, ‘Femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ as codified aesthetics are still integral to the fashion industry as a whole, but the intersections and cross overs between the two are becoming ever more apparent in high fashion. Under Jeremy Scott, Moschino is increasingly bringing this questioning attitude towards gender aesthetics onto the catwalk. Because of this, Moschino’s Fall 2018 runway was a triumph. Part of the novelty of Scott’s vision was its hybridity and gendered versatility–a feat successfully executed without resorting to minimalistic or agendered cuts. Debonair women strode alongside coquettish men and vice-versa.
The collection maximised the erotic power of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity, elevating gender beyond the conventional sex of the wearer and propelling it into a conceptual exploration of sexual and gendered tropes. With pinstripes, PVC, and leather–Scott cut up clothing’s gendered stereotypes and pieced them back together in the form of a suspender belt-cum-jacket to be worn effortlessly by both men and women. The powerfully erotic charm of the collection reflected how a combination of masculine and feminine aesthetics could result in something you just can’t envision by relying on the image of a single gender. The finale ‘tandem tux’ is the material realisation of this gender displacement: together a drag queen and trans non-binary activist prowl sultrily in their black stilettoes down the catwalk against societies binary gaze.
Yes, the intense homoeroticism of the collection added an overtly sexual tone to the show, but the gendered innovativeness of the collection partially lay in the presentation of sex on equal terms. Here, the female and male models are equally sexed subjects–latex dolls concealed under executive pinstripes. Each model casts a knowing gaze into the audience as if heading to a gathering we all wish we were invited to. It is incredibly refreshing to see sex and gender presented as something which becomes all the more sensual and powerful for combining the extremes of both feminine and masculine charm.
I find this the most exciting way in which fashion is currently exploring gender, through the assimilation and celebration of both masculinity and femininity. Yes, Calvin Klein’s clean and agendered runways radiate in their minimalistic attitude to gender, but isn’t it so much more interesting to revel in intense masculine and feminine fashion in a slick PVC power suit?