Borrowed from the boys, menswear-inspired, masculine/feminine—it’s a narrative we’ve all heard before; quippy headlines accompany sharp-shouldered tailoring and images of long, lithe models and street style stars with light and cheeky grins. It’s not only the copy, but the attitude is something mischievous as if wearing a blazer or suit pants suddenly subverts gender divisions. To be frank, it doesn’t. And despite the recent progress we’ve made as a society to move beyond gendered binaries—especially in fashion—we haven’t quite found the words to inscribe it. And while gendered garments and notions of style are progressing, the way we describe it has not.
We seem to be limited with words, instead of encouraging thoughtful description that actually gives life to a style or garment, we opt for the easy way out, using blanket terms that fall under a binary of either masculine or feminine. It’s outdated and honestly lazy. While we challenge ourselves to look outside binary gender in so many ways of life, are we really changing the space if we haven’t the vocabulary to describe it? It’s a question of authenticity, really. How deeply do we believe in non-binary fashion if it always has to be translated back into blanket terms?
This problem isn’t new, either. Judith Butler described a similar phenomenon in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, explaining that ‘woman’ is a social construct; and as a consequence of our environment, the idea of woman will continue to shift and grow with society. In those terms, its opposite—man—would also be a result of social circumstance. In the past thirty years, we’ve made strides socially, and in this downtown sphere, there is a strong acknowledgment that our world is non-binary. Yet, it seems that Butler’s theory is still stuck in 1990, and bringing the idea into 2018 requires more than just a shift in environment—it requires a complete evolution of how we describe gender from the get-go.
So many outlets have picked apart the same issue, questioning fashion’s interest in gender as yet another trendy appropriation—too often, the co-opting of an idea that feels progressive is a bit knee-jerk and lacking in depth. Those are the modern case studies we are limited with. That, and historical instances of subverting the system—Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, Coco Chanel’s trousers, and Giorgio Armani’s Power Suit, included. When bringing those examples back into modern day, the flaws become apparent. Model Hari Nef describes this issue with exact conciseness, telling indie mag Not Just A Label, “If [a woman] is sourcing [power] from a signifier of stereotypical masculinity, then how sustainable is that?” She continues, “if [a woman] is putting on [a suit] and taking it off, is that really a subversion of gender binaries or is it just a reinforcement of that binary as we know it?”
Personally speaking, I’ve had to stop myself on countless occasions from relying on language that is familiar, not only to myself but to my peers. And I know I’m not the only one. In August of 2017, Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik covered Vogue US with the headline “Breaking gender codes and embracing the paradigm shift.” Plurals for Spring? Groundbreaking. It was big and bold (for Vogue) and I was excited to pore through the pages and see how such a widely known and typically conservative publication was covering gender fluidity. Truth is, they didn’t. The aftermath was a series of public apologies for “missing the mark” as they did with Gigi and Zayn bending gender by borrowing one another’s clothes on the chance occasion. This is a prime example of an attempt to embrace progressiveness without having the tools to actually do so. By continuing to express gender fluidity in binary terms, it strips it of its true definition and perpetuates the misunderstanding and misuse. And unless we update our vocabulary, people will continue to present a diluted understanding of it.
Those who have attempted to tackle this in the past have gone about it all wrong, whether completely misunderstanding the depth of gender fluidity or erasing gender altogether with garments and collections that are unisex. It’s not that offering a gender neutral option isn’t progressive, but it’s an easy way out of pushing ourselves to ascribe gender fluid garments with a language of equal fluidity. Unisex is so often conveyed through boxy, shapeless, and colorless clothing, stripping a garment of its ability to signify any kind of style at all. This goes entirely against the intention of fashion, as a means of self-expression. In addition, most collections are shown on cisgender models, further implying that unisex garments are made for only men and women. It’s neither modern nor realistic, which implies that many brands’ attempt at appearing up-to-date is just a game of smoke and mirrors.
Yet not all brands are failing miserably. Since Alessandro Michele took the creative helm at Gucci, he’s been merging men’s and women’s offerings to a single catwalk, putting male models in pussy-bow blouses and women in suits. He’s in no way shattering the glass ceiling, but by encouraging the audience to see clothes contextualized by their style rather than their gender, he presents fluidity as it should be. A blouse is a blouse is a blouse, it’s simply that. J.W. Anderson has been showing men in skirts since his runway debut, and it was never a question of gender or a statement on cross-dressing, but a product offering that we hadn’t seen anywhere else.
At its core, fashion is about personal identity. It’s about fabric, shape, feeling, and history; clothing has the ability to evoke personality and hide or highlight facets of ourselves within our own control. As physical humans, we’ve transcended the social construct of binary gender, so let’s acknowledge the power of fashion to take self-expression a step further. We can start with an industry-wide recognition that genderfluid is the new gender. Full stop. From there, a stronger, more authentic conception of ideas and creation should build upon our beliefs and ideals that we’re creating for a modern society. Representation is key, and this change cannot be made without inclusive casting. It’s essential that everyone be able to recognize themselves—that means casting non-binary models and showing clothing worn with intention. And, of course, this means updating copy, pushing ourselves to get creative with vocabulary and breathe life into fashion through language as inclusive as our casting. It’s about time, so let’s get going.