As the centuries have progressed the call for gender confusion or “gender trouble” as Butler has stated, has grown increasingly loud. Once the traditional moulds for men and women’s fashion were broken they could not be patched together again, and the masquerade of fashion enabled those alienated from such stereotypes to dress up and invent their own gender identity.
In fact, one of the biggest and most prevalent mistakes in western culture is the idea that there exist two separate and “opposite” genders: masculinity and femininity. This gender dualism is not only false and without any factual or scientific support, but also very harmful. One strategy to overcome this wrongness is the idea of androgyny, by which masculinity and femininity are not conceived as opposite ends of one spectrum, but as two separate spectrums: you can be or have both at once (or neither), not only the one or the other. Thus, you can combine the various components of masculinity and femininity in any number of ways, according to your individual preferences, needs and nature. Androgyny has dipped in and out of fashion and is an interesting aesthetic and style to include when creating my very own gender-bending portraits. Androgyny seeks to combine male and female, masculine and feminine, creating a strange yet magical hermaphrodite vision. It’s a unity, which softens gender confusion and anxiety, by evoking a mythical pure state of being. This idea was expressed in the beautiful and ambiguous portraits created by Bettina Rhiems in her series, “Gender Studies” and is something I too want to achieve. I want my gender bending subjects to appear gentle and ambiguous and in that elevate to mystical and dignified individuals.
Next up is a brief breakdown of androgyny through the eras. Since the 1920’s androgyny has been associated with the search for greater independence for women, the merging of genders signifying a desire to inscribe masculine power on a female body. The mysterious and seductive potential of the androgynous body, slim and youthful yet knowing and self-aware, was emblematic in the inter-war period. The androgynous style of this period encapsulated both ambiguity and freedom. This fascinating uncertainty was embodied by screen sirens Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Their frequently mannish costumes heightened the glow of their soft feminine faces, a seductive blend of boyishness and feminine beauty. Sybil DelGaudio wrote of the ambiguity of Dietrich’s image in 1993:
“In highlighting difference, incongruity becomes another way of suggesting that things are not as they seem. Cross-dressing disguises one’s sexual identity and presents an outer appearance that does not match the inner reality of one’s sexual self” (1993:44)
By the 1960s the same silhouette was evoked, again to denote freedoms gained by women. Women were caught walking the catwalk in trouser suits and boy cuts. Twiggy’s boyish look bedazzled people and designers were encouraged to experiment with fashion as the previous eras had not allowed. Meanwhile, the hippie culture saw men getting more creative by growing hair past their shoulders and wearing wacky clothing, inspired by the latest rock star image.
In the 1970’s photographer Helmut Newton eroticised the delicate androgyne dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, drawing on the mystery and exoticism of Dietrich’s image. The sharp black tailoring of Saint Laurent’s trouser suits were juxtaposed with floating transparent blouses, creating an ambiguous combination of sensuality and power.
Then came pop culture which caused havoc amongst people. Madonna and Michael Jackson were idolized, causing much of a stir with their enthralling persona and perfect mingling of both masculine and feminine. Fashionable androgyny as well as sexual identity was now more accepted.
The 1990’s saw men and women being drawn into the play of androgyny. Men looked back to the ambiguous icons of the 1970’s like David Bowie, as well as more contemporary figures like Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. Men wore tight tops and low slung trousers. Women were seen to be slimmer due to the new hipster style, which exposed the stomach down to the hipbone. Slenderness was necessary in order to carry off this new androgynous ideal where feminine curves were out, and boyish figures were in. The pervasive nature of this teenage silhouette was echoed by the waif-like models which engulfed the early part of this decade. (Please refer to previous posts on diet and the ideal where I explore fashions obsession with thinness)
Fashion is a public expression of one’s beliefs; fashion is a feminist weapon that has the ability to make clear the very mental process of the wearer. And androgyny has for a long time empowered women or at least broke traditional images of femininity and masculinity. But for me I believe the androgynous style is beautiful in its ambiguity and uncertainty.
An example of this is of Bianca Jagger who wore a skirt suit by Yves Saint Laurent for her wedding to Mick Jagger in 1971. Dressed all in white, Bianca held no bouquet but wore a corsage around her wrist that melted into a powerfully lined suit. A wide brimmed hat, veiled allowed for everything to be seen and simultaneously covered. Similarly to the transparent, undressed and dressed fashions I spoke about previously (). Bianca was a vision in white, yet structurally a woman for the day, formed through a sharply seamed and padded suit, narrow and clinching yet imbued with power-and imbued with equality next to a suited groom. And what about Saint Laurent pantsuit from 1974? The wide-leg pleated trousers, the buttoned waistcoat and the walking stick. All so menacingly palpable in their masculinity yet feminised by the body and the energy of Bianca herself. Was it an overt statement? It was. It is one of the most memorable moments of a woman wearing fashion. It was a confrontation-a visual one to men and women, its subversive powers lying in the very mixing of virginal white and masculine tailoring, of a woman carrying a phallic symbol with a red corsage hung above her heart.
This reinforces that women do not have to be the victim of trends like so many women have felt they had to in previous decades. A woman is now at liberty to choose and to clothe herself however she wants. She is a “power dresser” because she wears what makes her feel powerful, whether it is a feminine dress or a masculine suit. She can choose between a romantic silk slip or a pocketed suit jacket allowing her to carry a pill, a condom or a credit card. The same can be applied to transgender, transsexual and cross dressers. It seems that fashion is favouring to support a generation of humans who are free to voice their opinions, selves and strengths. And that is the ideal. Androgyny is definitely a style I want to emulate in my own images.
Arnold, R (2001) Fashion, Desire and Anxiety. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.
Entwistle, J (2000) The Fashioned Body. USA Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Fashionising (N.D) Androgyny in Fashion [online] available from<http://www.fashionising.com/trends/b–androgyny-androgynous-fashion-22284.html> (1st May 2014)
Barnard, Μ. (2000). Fashion as Communication. New York: Routledge. Craik, J. (1998). The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. New York: Routledge.
Mancunion (16th November 2011) History of Androgyny [online] available from<http://mancunion.com/2011/11/16/history-of-androgyny-in-fashion/> (1st May 2014)