- Jackie Mallon |
Most fashion students naturally embrace a level of gender nonconformity. Already equipped with a counterculture rebelliousness, they are taught to decode garments and approach dressing as an extension of their creativity.Their favorite designers have dealt in androgyny for decades: Ann Demeulemeester, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani...At the heart of the flapper frenzy Coco Chanel dressed women in slacks made from tricot knits previously used in men’s underwear; Marlene Dietrich in her dapper top hat and tails worn with glamourous pencilled eyebrows is still a source of inspiration.
Clashes, collisions, juxtaposition, they're what makes the fashion world tick. This meets that, hard meets soft, girly meets masculine, sporty meets chic, city meets desert...Two distinct entities are mashed together. Separately, they are easily understood; together they become something new, yet familiar. But in this era of gender-fluidity, male meets female, and all is no longer so clear-cut.
'Gender fluidity is everywhere'
I hear the phrase “I want my clothes to be unisex” from my students. Traditionally we would correct the student who had clearly misunderstood and meant “androgynous.” Men and women can't wear the same clothes, we would counsel. Items need to be cut differently to translate to the female form. Breasts and hips must be considered in the fit of the garment. Women button right over left; men button left over right. Chastened, the student would settle for androgynous and we, smug in our knowledge, would think no more about it.
But now this knowledge must be under question. Girls already buy “boyfriend jeans” at J Crew, boys touch up their make-up in the bathroom between classes. Gender fluidity is everywhere, heralding a playbook of new codes that in the hands of the fashion student will become even more fluid: Transgender, intersex, gender nonconforming, agender, bigender, cisgendered, gender queer...
It leaves the centuries-old retail pillars of menswear and womenswear on shaky ground. As instructors we could always fall back on the marketability of unisex clothing. Where will you sell it? It’s too niche. There isn't a customer base. Even Hedi Slimane in the early 00s, upon discovering that his skinny Dior Menswear suits were being worn by women, reportedly had them tweaked to suit the female body.
If we question it, women buttoning their shirts differently than men is an archaic practice. Furthermore cavemen didn’t dress their cavebabies in either pink or blue. Throughout the ages, the human race has accumulated a databank of codes and they are currently being dismantled. Couture designer Rad Hourani created an entirely genderless collection shown during Paris Haute Couture week with masks covering the models’ faces so that viewers could not impose any preconceptions on the garments.
'The human race has accumulated a databank of codes and they are currently being dismantled'
Last month, Selfridges in London carved out a section on both their men’s and women’s floors for their new “Agender” retail concept in which they sell items that can be worn by either him or her, from labels like Comme Des Garcons and Rick Owens. A smattering of pioneering American high schools have introduced a policy where students struggling to accept the gender they were assigned at birth are permitted to select the restroom they wish to use based on how they identify.
If we fast forward further, will we soon shop in gender fluid retailers where frills and pin stripes are simply ways to decorate oneself, where dressing will be a form of free association that rejects all classification of “girl” clothes or “boy” clothes, driven simply by an uncensored curiosity, void of any assumptions? I don't imagine it will be called unisex as that already sounds outmoded. Many young influencers are directing us that way.
Musician Grimes says, “I vibe in a gender neutral space so I'm kind of impartial to pronouns of myself. I wish I didn't have to be categorized.” Indeed the younger the advocate, the more resonant the message. Actor Will Smith’s 16-year-old son, Jaden, recently captioned a photo of himself wearing a dress with the words, “Went to TopShop to buy some girl clothes, I mean ‘clothes.’”
Could this blossoming egalitarianism lead to a radical change in how the industry fits, sizes, labels, and markets clothes? As the highly anticipated New York Menswear fashion week approaches, I wonder if separate shows might become redundant, or even politically incorrect, in the not-too-distant future. Gender fluidity might even usher in the look of our time that we've been trying so desperately to define since the turn of the millennium with little result. At the very least it might finally drag women away from this boob-and-butt buffet of overworked spandex that we've been force fed; this phenomenon of bloated femininity that makes me think of geese that will end up as foie gras.
'Gender fluidity might even usher in the look of our time'
There are other ways this new freedom can lead to complications in the classroom. I was invited to guest-critique a class, and the appearance of one student gave me no clue to whether they identified as female or male. Their name was ambiguous. The student was clearly transitioning, but that’s all I could ascertain. Mid-critique I used the pronoun “she” and I could see a flicker of disappointment in their eyes that stayed with me the rest of the day.
It can be confusing for all of us but not least those who are questioning their identity, and we as instructors don’t want to contribute to their anxiety. Yet when all codes are removed and our language has not caught up, we might find ourselves ill-fitting.
So as instructors we could keep in mind these words from zeitgeist-whisperer, Hedi Slimane, which seem as correct now as the sleek-hipped cut of his trouser was then: "With anything you do, it's very important to try to understand the time you are living in, to be a part of the present. I always just try to know the spirit of the time."
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.