The concept of androgyny stems from the Latin term for hermaphrodite (“androgynous”), and can be found referenced throughout literary and philosophical texts since the mid 17th century. In contemporary culture, to be androgynous can be seen as a form of gender identity or expression, as well as an emerging aesthetic in fashion and queer culture.
For many, what comes to mind when talking about the androgynous look is models such Ruby Rose, Madison Paige, or Elliot Sailors. These upcoming fashion icons model in both female and male fashion shows, and represent changing ideas about what is “beautiful” or “handsome”.
However, all of the aforementioned models (and many others like them) showcase a singular facet of androgyny: that of skinny, classically beautiful people in menswear. And don’t get me wrong, they rock the look. But androgyny and gender exist on a spectrum, and include so much more than dress shirts and bow ties. My experiences of incorporating androgyny into my fashion and fashion expression may have been inspired by Kate Moennig and Ari Fitz’s lookbooks, but have turned into a process of challenging my perceptions of gender expression, as well as how to “play” within these norms.
I identify as female. I am cisgendered, use she/her pronouns, and for all intents and purposes, fit the classic mold of what it is to “be” a woman. Until the last few months, I have preferred wearing dresses to pants, and saw my long hair as being inextricable from my femininity. However, recently I have begun to question my gender presentation, and what my preferences for hair bows and floral patterns represent on a larger cultural scale.
This questioning has given me a surprising gift: the ability to choose my fashion based on my own aesthetics and tastes, rather than off of the predetermined ideas of gendered fashion. This doesn’t mean that I don’t wear dresses anymore. What it means is that I no longer see wearing dresses as being symbolic of womanhood, nor do I feel an obligation to “dress up” for formal occasions in heels. Instead, when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I have the ability to choose how I want to “present” for the day. Do I want to wear a tight sports bra, and put on a plaid shirt and loose pants? Or maybe I’m in the mood to wear my hair down, and throw on a polka-dotted skirt—however I choose to “present” for the day is based off of my own feelings, rather than off of aesthetic expectations.
However, these explorations of fashion and presentation have exposed some disheartening truths about the ways in which society affiliates fashion with gender and sexuality. On the days I look “classically” feminine, I am more likely to be catcalled. I am also more likely to be hit on, asked out, and get spoken to in a condescending voice. Simultaneously, when I decide to present in a more androgynous manner, I am more likely to get asked about my sexuality, to be “called dyke”, or, when I’m makeup-free and have my hair tucked into a hat, get questioning “boy or girl?” glances. Playing with gendered fashion started as a means of exploring my own tastes, and has transitioned into a study of other people’s perceptions of gender expression through clothes.
The turn to androgyny in fashion and away from the unnecessary gendering of clothing is an ongoing process. While androgynous aesthetics are still largely affiliated with the aforementioned mold of slender, clean-shaven, beautiful people in suits, this model is being challenged. Online fashion bloggers such as the fabulous Elliot Alexzander (known best for their website “House of Alexzander) are showcasing alternative ways to play with gender presentation through clothes. These subversions of gender presentation, in all of their forms, are representative of the larger understandings of gender roles and expectations being shifted.
My play with androgynous fashion is by no means radical. I have a lot of privilege, and the ability to see these explorations as “play” illustrates just that. As I’ve come to treat my body as my own canvas, and my wardrobe as a means of decorating that canvas for my own pleasure, I’ve felt liberation from the confines of gendered fashion. While for others, re-examining gender through fashion may put them in a position of vulnerability to trans-phobia, gender-based hate, and violence.
Fashion is continuously trivialized as merely a shallow manifestation of late capitalism (this probably ties into the continuous invalidation of women-led industries, but alas, that is for another article). However, as with all matters of human endeavor, fashion reflects changing societal and political attitudes. With the broadening of understandings of the intricacies of the gender spectrum and, in turn, of gender performativity, there will hopefully come a more open space for play through fashion.
Rach Klein, Online Contributor