Is androgyny the new black or the new normal?

 In Press

It fell to Dame Vivienne Westwood to sum up fashion’s new fascination with gender-bending, in one says-it-all ensemble at her January show in Milan, which happened to be the very first look in a menswear collection dedicated to Prince Charles. An androgynous model doused in metallic make-up wore a finely cut but mismatched suit with some flash-banker socks and a pair of blue high heels that required only a platform to be fit for The Real Housewives of Cheshire.

Girls dressed as boys is one of the oldest tricks in the fashion circus. In womenswear, they’ve been at it since Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn first experimented with a severely tailored aesthetic in the 1930s and 1940s, later ignited by Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ in 1966. Ralph Lauren in the 1970s, via Armani’s softened tailoring in the 1980s and its modern, empowered equivalent at Céline all developed the trope, which most recently manifested in Rihanna’s double-breasted tuxedo-clad performance at the Grammys. The difference this season is that the menswear collections are now returning the favour, en masse.

At the men’s autumn/winter 2015 shows in London, Milan and Paris, designers tested the limits of gender-neutral clothing as never before. In London, Sibling put all its men in pink, some in frayed fishnet jumpers over skirt-length shirts; JW Anderson, a serial rejector of gender codes, went for thick-belted, high-waisted, hip-enhancing trousers; Todd Lynn’s bewigged men and women shared a catwalk, and in their severe, rock-touched suiting were sometimes hard to tell apart. Cut to Milan and the hubbub found an expression in the notes Miuccia Prada gave guests at her show: ‘Gender is a context and context is often gendered.’ In her collection, Prada showed how interchangeable men’s and women’s clothes can be. Male and female models wore versions of the same coats, in the same fabric: austere but illustrative androgyny.

Perhaps the most confronting gender realignment of all was at Gucci — usually a bastion of tight-trousered, testosterone-charged gloss — where new creative director Alessandro Michele put his men in pussy-bow blouses, chiffon and red lace, while the four female models on the catwalk wore the least ‘feminine’ looks in the collection: naval-style overcoats, loose trousers, slim tailored jackets and silk shirts. In Paris, Hedi Slimane had even more female models at Saint Laurent and, while none were dressed as boyishly as his boys (in jeans tight enough to turn coal into diamonds), both genders wore boots with 8cm heels. Backstage, when asked if he was still pursuing a vision touched by androgyny, Slimane shrugged, smiled, and replied: ‘Always.’

So, what’s up? There are a few fancy hypotheses you could bandy when contemplating just why fashion is changing its tune about who wears the trousers. Womenswear designers have been pushing a mannish look for some time now — Céline and all that. So you could venture that it follows that menswear designers will push back. And that this recalibration is a perfectly proper reflection of a society in which gender no longer defines our roles and our prospects as powerfully as before.

It’s a notion that’s beginning to trickle down from designers into retail. Next month, Selfridges is introducing a three-floor retail area called Agender in which designer clothes, accessories and beauty products that are neither Barbie-girly nor aggressively mannish will be stocked. The store describes Agender as ‘a space where clothing is no longer imbued with directive gender values, enabling fashion to exist as a purer expression of self’.

That’s highfalutin stuff — but this shift is practical, too, and two powerful factors are the prosaic matters of timing and money. These just-past men’s collections coincided with the release of the women’s pre-fall collections, which go on sale in the summer. Many designers make both menswear and womenswear, so, to save time — although they probably wouldn’t put it that way — they now incorporate the same ideas into both men’s A/W and women’s pre-fall: two birds, one stone. That JW Anderson men’s collection with the businesswoman-cut trousers took it further by including the same suede coat in both collections. Reviewing both pre-fall and menswear collections, I repeatedly encountered designers who confessed that as much by necessity as creative urge, they were working simultaneously on collections for both genders. Inevitably, each was blurring into the other.

The cleverest designers, Anderson and Prada among them, have made an artistic virtue of their crowded calendars: where they led, others are now following. And it makes glaring sense to feature men and women side by side on the catwalks. After all, fashion, along with sport, is pretty much the only business left where gender segregation is unblinkingly accepted. Miuccia Prada peppered her menswear catwalk with womenswear looks last season, too, and said afterwards: ‘I think the combination is more real. It is more “today”. Otherwise it looks like we are in classes, in the time of my grandfather — women divided from men. The shows divided are so unreal.’ While it’s still true that fashion often thrives on propagating unreality, it looks like the anachronism of aspic-clad gender separation is dissolving into something far more nuanced.

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